In the early 1970s, a young man decided to drop in on a calligraphy class at Reed College. He loved learning the art form, but he also knew it probably wouldn’t have any practical purpose later in life. He didn’t think much about calligraphy until about a decade later. He was designing a computer when all those exquisite letters unexpectedly popped into his mind. In that moment, he decided that his computer would be the first to have a variety of beautiful typefaces.
That young man, of course, was Steve Jobs. The computer was the Macintosh. Look into the personal life of a business person you admire, and you’re likely to find a similar story: business owners may often be best known for their rationality, but they can also be profoundly creative, too. And sometimes, unexpected disciplines, like calligraphy, can help them break new ground.
We reached out to seven business owners from companies of all sorts, from toy designers to coffee bean roasters, to find out what creative activities help them come up with innovative business ideas. From the arts-oriented to physical, these simple exercises can work for someone in any line of business, regardless of their background.
You don’t have to be a master artist to reap the benefits of drawing. In fact, studies reveal that casual sketching and scribbling can help us focus, reduce stress, and improve our memories. Few people understand this better than Maxwell Bogue, the co-founder of WobbleWorks. He uses the company’s 3Doodler, their best-selling 3D printing pen, to help come up with solutions in business.
"The beauty of the product we invented is that the tool itself is a unique and artistic way to generate ideas or test them out,” he tells us. “I sketch ideas in 3D and eventually see them develop before my very eyes. This is the first time where, as a founder, I am constantly going back to my invention time and time again for inspiration."
Genevieve Brazelton, the founder and CEO of The Bitter Housewife, is always on the lookout for innovative cocktail ideas. “Flavor development for the bitters is the most creative part of my job,” she explains. “Inspiration first comes from reading a recipe for a cocktail or drinking one. I can't read a recipe or enjoy a cocktail (or food for that matter) without thinking about how I would change it.
“If something captures my attention, I save the recipe or write it down. I then make notes about how I think I would change it. Maybe I’d add a flavor, take something out, or double the amount of something else to make it more prominent.” Once she’s gathered her notes, it’s time to get to work in the kitchen.
Write in a Stream-of-Consciousness Style
Taking the time to put pen to paper can help unleash new ideas. In addition to your daily notes, consider setting aside some time to write creatively. It could be a poem or a short story, or maybe it’s a simple journal entry about your day. Think freely and without any pressure from the outside world.
Buffy Maguire is the founder of Lady Falcon Coffee Club in San Francisco. “Generating ideas is one of my favorite parts about leading the company,” she says. “I find that writing freestyle in a stream of consciousness helps the flow of the idea immensely. In this process, there are no edits. It is allowed to unfold organically. A lack of judgment is crucial to my creative process.”
Head to the Library
Several of the business owners we spoke to recommend looking to history for inspiration. Karen Kim, the founder of Binu Binu Soap House, for example, does her research before embarking on any new product idea.
“The history of Korean bathhouse culture and wellness is a big part of what drives our inspiration and products,” she says. “I love to learn more about people's historical beliefs and how that may translate into modern practices.
“Korea has such a rich history of strong female figures, such as the infamous Haenyeo Sea Women divers of Jeju Island, and also a lineage of female Shamanic healers. I find their stories inspirational and wanted to pay homage and put a spotlight on them by creating soaps that celebrate them.”
Keep a Dream Journal.
Your subconscious mind could hold your next big idea. Mckenzie Santiago, the co-founder of Brooklyn Grooming in New York, is the prime example. “I had dreamed of starting a men’s grooming brand, and when I woke up, it just felt right,” she tells us.
“I had this fire in my mind, and I started crafting my brand. I wrote down everything I was planning to make, and then I went to work. I pull most of my inspiration from dreams I have. It’s where I am most free and my creativity exists without the stress of regular life.”
Try keeping a notebook on your bedside table and jotting down your dreams each day when you wake up.
A few years ago, researchers at Stanford found that walking can increase creative output by 60 percent. If you’re stuck sitting at your desk, struggling to come up with ideas, getting up and moving could be the solution.
While a simple walk around the office will work, Santiago prefers a more intense workout. “When I feel stuck or my mind is too full, I punch and kick a heavy bag,” she tells us. “I’ll usually do a simple combo like a jab, cross, right kick.”
Go Somewhere New.
Katie McClure and Erin Breen, co-founders of the ethical caftan and resort wear brand MIRTH, find inspiration through traveling the world. “Travel heightens your senses and encourages you to be curious and open to discovery--huge drivers of creativity,” they tell us. “We've found that when we travel and our minds are not occupied by our typical day-to-day routine, there is more space for our brains to breathe. This is when our best ideas are formed.”
Learning from other cultures can help you bring new ideas back home with you, too.
Break Your Routine
You don’t need to travel to the other side of the world to experience what Breen and McClure have. A simple change in scenery can do wonders.
“Don't get too comfortable because that is the death of creativity,” McClure says. “Simple changes to your routine, like taking a new route to work or sitting somewhere different in the morning, helps you not to get stuck and can fuel new ideas.
“I try to change up my day in minor ways. Instead of grabbing my usual cold brew from the fridge, I'll go out and get a coffee, or I'll go for a run on the other side of town. These small changes of habit really make a difference in my mindset.”
Take a Digital Detox
We live in a digital world, but sometimes unplugging from our screens can help us to think more creatively. Meet with your team in person, and slow down. Turn the phones off, shut the computers, and concentrate fully on the task at hand.
“Our process starts with a cup of tea and a whiteboard,” Susie Picken Burch, Marketing Director at the award-winning vegan creamery Miyoko's Kitchen, tells us. “We block off time without any cell phones or appointments to interrupt us, and off we go. We are an unconventional organization in a growing category. It’s part of our magic... and tea is a critical element in all of it!”
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