improve your creativity image

The Real World Guide to Improving Creative Output

Emma Derbyshire 7 years ago

Creativity is a word that is thrown around all over the place in our industry, but what does it actually mean? How do you know if you are creative? Is it something that can be taught?

It is such a subjective skill that not only is it incredibly hard to measure with any kind of metric, it is also something that works differently for each and every one of us.

It most certainly is not something that can be taught – but it is something that can be encouraged, helped, enticed out of someone by the right environment, resources, processes and sometimes, even, the right people.

So much goes on inside the brain when we are being creative that scientists are still working hard to establish exactly how it all works. What we do know already is that there are three essential parts of the brain that we need to work together in order for us to be creative:

brain image

The attention control network (Green)

This part of our brain helps us to focus intensely on a specific task; we activate this part of our brain when we need to concentrate on something complex, or hone all of our attention in to one particular thing, such as reading or listening. This is essential when it comes to being creative; we need to be able to focus on objectives and briefs, without being distracted.

The imagination network (Red)

The imagination network is the part of our brain that empowers us to imagine scenarios of the future, as well as remember things that have happened in the past. This is crucial for creativity; if this area of our brain isn’t engaged, we are unable to create any mental images and find links between things of the past for the future, which is - arguably - the definition of creativity.

The attentional flexibility network

Of the three, this is perhaps the most important area of the brain when it comes to achieving optimum creativity. It gives us the power to monitor what is going on around us and allows our brains to switch between the attention control network and the imagination network.

So how is it that we can encourage creativity from ourselves and our colleagues/staff in our day to day jobs? Welcome to Zazzle’s Ultimate Guide to Improving Creativity…

A creative environment

Your environment, both physical and psychological, are equally important when it comes to creativity. The trick here, in order to maximise creative possibility, is to slightly adjust your environment depending on how creative you need to be.

For example, it is unlikely that your working day will require a constant level of intense creativity; proof reading a blog post requires less than brainstorming, for example. Let’s tackle this one aspect at a time, starting with building an atmosphere that encourages creativity in the office.

This bit is pretty simple. There are a number of things that you and your colleagues can do to optimise your creative working environment. Ultimately, on a top level, a happy working environment contributes to a creative one, so the basics for a happy workforce such as clear communication, transparency and team spirit are a great starting point.

Going to a deeper level, having fun both inside and outside of work with colleagues, eating together at lunch time and rewarding creativity are also factors that unleash a team of creative geniuses.

All these things create a sense of openness and ease between staff; feeling this comfortable with people that you work (and are being creative) with increases the chances of you relaxing, and if you relax you are more likely to allow your creative juices to flow.

Not only this, but you will be more inclined to talk through your ideas with colleagues; when you think that you’re on to something but you’re not quite there, sometimes all you need is someone else to say a certain word or lead you down a certain path which means you will end up at your desired, highly creative destination.

Here, it is worth mentioning the devil that we are all familiar with: creative block. One of the best ways to overcome this is just to take a break. So having a working atmosphere around you where this is understood and respected, as well as a dedicated space for you to take this break, is essential to improve creativity.

So what about your creative space? The place you go to be creative, whether it be an office, your garage or a corner in your bedroom. Science has revealed that there are a number of things we can do in the space in which we are trying to be creative that can maximise our potential.

Sound. Some people are able to work with their headphones in and music blasting so loud that everyone else can hear it too, others struggle to work unless they are in absolute silence. In terms of the best for creativity, according to science, ambient noise levels are best. Music stimulates the brain, but when it is too loud it distracts.

A moderate noise level is the sweet spot; it gets your creative juices flowing due to processing becoming difficult - difficult enough that it promotes abstract processing. When your brain is forced to process abstractly, it resorts to creative alternatives.

Are you always either cold or hot at work? If so, this could be stinting your creativity massively. It isn’t an issue of whether you are comfortable or not, but rather that if you are too cold or too hot, you use a lot of energy trying to warm yourself up or cool yourself down. This is creative energy wasted.

Adding a layer in the morning or turning the heating up in the office could make a whole world of difference.

Low lighting is the optimum for creativity; it makes us feel less constrained and encourages us to explore. Perfect for content idea generation and brainstorming. Not so much however, for when it comes to actually writing or designing the content once the idea has been agreed – so turn the lights back up when you have a specific idea to concentrate on.

Sensory experiences are also great at clearing the haze that is a creative block. So hanging thought-provoking abstract paintings on the walls or playing unusual music is great for a break area in a creative environment.

Resources for creativity

Okay, so you've got your creative working atmosphere and environment spot on. What next? Use the internet to improve your creativity - and no, this is not cheating. Research is an intelligent but obvious way of improving creativity, but so many in the industry simply overlook or forget to do it.

What incredible inspiration and stimulation you're missing out on if you simply ignore this mass of ideas right at your fingertips (thank you, world wide web!)

Not only will it inspire you, but if nothing else, it will remind you - as if you could ever forget - why you are so passionate about the digital/content marketing industry. So, here is a list of five places to look, just to get you going:


The Global Creative Design Advertising Association celebrate the finest examples from the design and advertising community, aiming to inspire the next generation of creative talent in the creative industry.

They showcase incredible campaigns that demonstrate their ability to take a simple brief and transform it into absolute magic.


News for the marketing & media industries, with stories, job search resources, events listing and features.


Design gallery showcasing the best single page website designs from around the web.


Covers the intersection of technology, science, art and culture. Divulging in-depth reports, long-form feature stories, breaking news coverage, product information and community content.


A web extension for Chrome that transforms your default browser page into a curated gallery of hand-picked design inspiration.

General creative resources

Inspiration searching, check. So now what about the actual processes you have in place and use daily when being creative? What are the best ways to literally pull the creativity out of you?

You’d never go for a run without warming up, would you? So why do you expect a marathon of creativity from your brain without warming that up? Try a brain warm up at the start of each of your working days – there are so many of these online!

Counting backwards from 100 really quickly, finding a noun for each of the letters of the alphabet or creating a mental list of names for both males and females are just a few, simple examples.

This all sounds rather silly, I know, but there is method in the madness. Doing exercises like this creates a neurological connection in your brain by getting those three all important networks mentioned earlier, working together.

They improve memory and practice keeping track of where you are in a sequence. They teach you to focus and how to get in tune with your brain.

There are more interesting, interactive brain warm-ups online too. Take a look here.

Now your brain is warm, what about some online tools to help further wake up that creativity? Here are four for you to explore:

  • Bottlenose – Provides you with a constantly shifting graphical representation of current hot topics. All you have to do is enter something broad and a mesmeric spider diagram of content will get to work. At any point you can click on a dot to re-centre your search.
  • Epic beat – This is a quick and easy to use tool which paints a simple picture of trends and key influencers. This gives you the opportunity to see the most shared stories on a particular topic, presented to you as a breakdown of shares and content type.
  • MindMeister – A powerful mind mapping tool with a free version that empowers you to create mind maps perfect for collecting ideas.

Creative processes

When was the last time you took the time (or even had the time) to sit down and review the way that you encourage creativity within yourself and your colleagues? You’re busy and we understand that, but taking the time out to constantly change and improve the way you work creatively is essential to maintaining a high creative standard.

Everyone loves a brainstorm. But at Zazzle we have introduced something new called ‘Brain-writing.’ Rather than voicing all our ideas at the start of a brainstorm, we instead say nothing, but write it all down. This is how it works…

Sit around a table and each divide a piece of paper in to six boxes. In the top left box write down any ideas, topics or words that you think are right to meet the objectives of the session; limit yourself to three.

Once you have all completed this, pass the sheet round to your left. Take a look at what the person on your right has written – does it inspire you? Can you elaborate on any of those ideas? Fill in the next box with three new ideas, and again, pass to the left. Continue the process until the boxes are full (or until you all run out of creative gas!)

Now it’s the time for talking. Everyone should look at the sheet of ideas in front of them and contribute those they think are the strongest – these are the ideas that should be discussed and worked on, verbally, as a team.

It works brilliantly. For starters, all ideas from the session are written down, so the organiser can take those away and bank them for the future – no creativity is wasted. Secondly, it allows those in the group who are less vocal to contribute confidently and effectively without having to battle against the other, louder characters in the group.

And finally, all too often there are times in brainstorms where you all become stuck on the first idea mentioned and moving past that can become a real challenge.

In these situations, you are often left sitting reworking that first idea over and over and putting a huge obstacle in the way on that potentially fantastic idea that is just around an imaginary corner. Brain-writing will uncover it.

Do you make sure you log ALL of your creativity? There is no such thing as a bad idea (pardon the cliché), but there really isn’t.

So make sure all of the ideas that come out of creative sessions are logged or banked somewhere. Whether there is one person who owns this on behalf of everyone else, or whether each individual keeps their own log – keep these ideas.

There is nothing better than sitting in a brainstorm or working on a project and getting a sudden brain wave of a previous, unused idea that would work.

Information is key. Working from a brief, meeting KPIs and targeting personas is the heart of everything we do here at Zazzle. It’s the data. Everything must be data led and informed - it sets us out from the rest.

Sometimes, giving too much information cripples creativity. At the start of a brainstorm or ideation session, it is of the upmost importance to share what you are aiming to achieve with the team, and I cannot emphasize this enough.

Going in to deep detail and all the specifics often results in immediate failure as the creative minds in the room use all their energy processing this mass of information, as opposed to conjuring up some creative genius.

So share the bare minimum, the absolute necessities and then set the session going. It is much better to filter the less appropriate ideas out at the end of a session, than stint creativity from the word go and try to lead an uninspired team.

The great - and why they are great

Make way for the mavericks of content marketing. Marketing has always been the practice of placing your brand in the forefront of your audience’s mind in order to alter their consumer habits in a way that will benefit your business.

Brands are relied on for creating meaningful content that communicates an idea or story in an emotionally relatable way; giving consumers the opportunity to connect with a movement or company by simply and truly ‘feeling it.’

Here are three great examples that adapt different, but equally effective content marketing approaches:

Hootsuite: A Social Game of Thrones

Hootsuite are the kings of taking their popular brand and well… making it more popular. They took the opportunity to jump on a trending topic – TV show Game of Thrones – to promote their social media services with the headline: ‘Unite your Social Kingdoms.’ It went viral and got almost 1 million views within a couple of months.

They knew, from audience insight, that a lot of their audience were Game of Thrones fans. They took the opportunity and ran with it. The video was distributed through all the right channels, and the results were epic.

Microsoft: BLOG & the power of story

They haven’t jumped on a trend and made a video that has gone viral, but what Microsoft do on their blog also achieves amazing results. Yes, their brand is huge, but that isn’t enough in the digital marketing world that we know is constantly adapting.

Microsoft have taken advantage of the fact that humans are wired to listen to stories – their blog is full of them. Tear jerkers on a theme of helping others, and inspiring stories of sensational people.

You’re probably thinking: this has nothing to with Microsoft or computers. Good observation, but one of the best kept secrets in content marketing is that your content doesn’t have to be heavily related to your brand. In fact, the less branded and obvious your content, the better.

Microsoft use the element of story telling to take out hearts, screw them up and throw them back at us – they then hit us with their branding when we are most vulnerable. Now that is clever content marketing; the reach and engagement they receive on their blog is an achievement in itself:

Microsoft blog results

So what are the lessons we can learn from Microsoft? Content doesn’t have to be huge and stories work. Got it? Great!

Disney - Magic Brand Messaging

My final example of great content marketing is again, not so much an obvious one, but more of a Derren Brown, subliminal messaging type of approach. Yes, on a top level note, Disney sell holidays and experiences, but below that, and less obviously so, their biggest seller is the notion of magic.

On their blog space, ‘magic’ is mentioned 13,000 times. Posts about Valentine's Day (making the most of seasonal opportunity), promotion of ‘magical’ merchandise and many, many more add to the brand's constant messaging, but in such a subtle way that audiences aren’t even given the opportunity to be stubborn and refuse it.

Instead they are sucked in by the wonderfulness that is the magic (and sheer quantity) of Disney content. With content marketing for a strategy like this, of course it will be the brand that will live forever.

So there are three examples of different, but successful, approaches to content marketing. What can we learn from them? Make the most of opportunity, know your audience, tell a story and use emotive content - your content doesn’t have to be all about your brand, and the more content the better.

Although these examples provide us with great lessons in content marketing approach, it is becoming more and more difficult to stand out in what is becoming an increasingly saturated market.

Originality is becoming a greater task as each year passes. This increase in competition provides a need to constantly look for ways to reinvent both ideas and approaches. Innovation is key – never stop moving. You can’t afford to.

Is your mind fried yet? Let this quote ease your mind: In the words of John Cleese, ‘Creativity is like a tortoise, it pokes its head out nervously, to ensure the environment is safe, before it emerges.’

Being labelled ‘creative’ for most of your life is brilliant – a compliment in my opinion – but with it comes pressure. Utilise your working space, colleagues, online resources and processes to the best of your ability to improve and make the most of that innate creativity, and you may just find that some of that pressure is lifted.

Creativity is different for all of us – just make sure you are always giving yourself, and your team, a head start.

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