505 E Main Ave, Bismarck ND  |  1408 20th Ave SW, Minot ND

What’s the big idea?


Learn the big secrets to big ideas by reading on, if you dare.

Since the dawn of humanity, we have struggled with coming up with ideas. For example, it took Grok the Stinky over 96 moon cycles to come up with his life-saving slogan, “Try not to get stomped on by those stupid wooly mammoths.” Unfortunately, while he was going from cave to cave spreading his message, he was promptly eaten by a Smilodon.

What does Grok’s death have to do with ideas? Nothing, but I thought you should know.

As you may have noticed, the Internet has a plethora of blogs on ideas and the only good way to come up with them. Most of those blogs disagree with each other, especially on LinkedIn. Did you know that over half of the posts on LinkedIn are intentionally bad advice? Why? Job security! Also, know-it-alls will comment with their many disagreements and corrections (they just can’t help themselves), which helps propagate the post to more and more people’s LinkedIn feeds. Being wrong never felt so right.

Anyway, here are some of the bigger questions about ideas, and my answers, all of which are the only right answers.

What’s the best way to come up with a great idea?

There is no best way, but there are many possible ways. Some people have their eureka moments in the shower (get one of these so you don’t forget them). Others while out running or driving. Some people are able to go to sleep with a problem and wake up with the answer, but those people are jerks and should be shunned. Some find that distracting themselves is the best avenue, allowing their subconscious to work on it while they entertain or busy themselves with something else. Coffee works for some, and something a bit stronger works for others. Try them all!

How many people does it take to come up with a great idea?

Sometimes it only takes one. Sometimes it takes some. When working as a group, forget the nonsense about how “there are no bad ideas.” There are many, many bad ideas (I’m guilty of more than my fair share), however, sometimes horrible ideas lead to great ones. Just make sure somebody is writing/typing stuff as you go.

When brainstorming with others, there’s no one best setting, but we’ve found we get a pretty darn good success rate when we get out of our usual office environment and have a working coffee break or lunch offsite. Denny’s is often our secret weapon.

Note: There has been a glut lately in online columns about how brainstorming is ineffective, but such nonsense is usually written by people who don’t work well with others. And never confuse a creative brainstorming group with committees, crowdsourcing or groupthink, as those are completely different and lesser beasties.

How long does it take to come up with a great idea?

There are those who scanned the book jacket of Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink for several seconds and walked away thinking that they cracked the secret to it all — that the first idea is always the best idea. Not so fast, Speedy. Gut reactions are sometimes right, but when they’re wrong, Whoa Nelly are they wrong.

I’ve gotten lucky by coming up with something spiffy in under five seconds, but usually the best ideas need some time to germinate and grow. And sometimes you need to step away for a while and come back to it later.

What do I need to know to come up with a great idea?

Sometimes less is more. Often more is more. A tabula rasa (“clean slate” for the less pretentious) can be the setting for some breakthrough stuff, but more often than not, you need to put in your time and research the heck out of things. Find and absorb whatever relevant information you can get your hands on. And if that information is provided before work begins, all the better.

A good reporter hits the “who, what, where, when, why and how” to write a solid news story, and similar information comes in handy when working on creative endeavors like… advertising, marketing and branding!

What can destroy a great idea?

A moment of self-doubt from the creator. Someone or some committee who doesn’t get it or wants to play it safe. Somebody who’s mad that the idea wasn’t theirs. Someone who finds self-worth in devaluing the work of others. A little old lady from Pasadena. George. In other words, anybody can destroy a great idea. It happens. Sometimes you can defend the idea. Sometimes you can sell the idea. Sometimes you need to move on.

Who can come up with a great idea?

Anyone! Ideas are very democratic. But some people are more likely than others to have them. Experience helps. And sometimes experience in one field helps in another. I’ve worked with art directors who have come up with killer headlines, copywriters who have come up with killer visuals, and Lexies and Nikkies have helped turn good concepts into great ones. Ad agencies can be a great place for great ideas.

Is it possible to overthink?

It is indeed possible to overthink something, but this is much rarer than you might think. The accusations of overthinking usually come from those who find solace in underthinking. If you’ve got a brain, use it! Try out some possibilities! Work the angles! Walk a mile in someone else’s shoes! Never say no to ice cream!

That last one is unrelated but still good advice.

So what’s the best combination of conditions for a great idea?

Nobody knows. And if anybody tells you differently, they’re lying.

And now you know everything there is to know about great ideas.


— Clayton Hove is KK BOLD’s creative director and pet parent to two smilodons. Follow his adventures and stray thoughts on Twitter.