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How to create whopping ideas quickly with word play

“Creativity involves breaking out of expected patterns in order to look for things in different ways,” noted Edward de Bono, one of the pioneers in the creativity domain. One of my favorite ways to break out of expected patterns and come up with ideas for a challenge your working on is to play with words. Today, I will share a few simple techniques to use words in quick, free-flowing ways to get your creative juices flowing. You will learn more about one of the Ideation Tools in our X-IDEA Toolbox, Word Association Chain, and some related techniques that also use the concept of free association.

Chain words together to get ideas

Word Association Chain is one of my favorite Ideation Tools in our X-IDEA Toolbox. The technique helps you to create a varied list of words, each related to the next. You can do this as a team or individually — all you need to is a blank piece of paper, a pen, and your mind.

How can you do it? First, review the challenge you’re working on (phrased as an action question that starts with the words “How to?”). Then, create a word association chain:

Start the chain with any word that comes to your mind or that you spot in a book or on a website.

Ask yourself: “What word does that word make me think of?” Write that new word down.

Continue asking: “What word does that new word make me think of?” Please write it down.

Repeat this process until your paper is full of associations.

Last but not least, use the words in your word association chain to stimulate raw ideas for your challenge.

Let’s look at an example:

Suppose you’re a brand manager working in the ice cream division of a major food company and work on the challenge, “How to create novel ice cream concepts for 6-12-year-old kids?” Now, you might start with the first word you see, which happens to be “Russia.” Now begin to build your chain of words by saying, “When I think of ‘Russia,’ I think of ‘Roulette’” and write down this new word. Then, keep going. Say, ‘Roulette’ makes you think of the “Revolver,” which makes you think of ‘Bullet’,” which makes you think of “Train,” which makes you think of “Station,” etc. 

Once your paper is full of words, look through your word chain and use it to trigger ideas. For example, the word “Bullet” might stimulate the idea, “Shape the ice cream like bullets for a gun,” while the word “Train” might inspire the idea “Shape the ice cream like a locomotive and the wagons of a train for kids to play with.” Take a look below at the illustrations to discover more possible ideas encouraged by the word chain.

Free-association: A powerful trigger to tap into your subconscious creativity

Important: If you want to make this technique work its magic, you need to think fluently. So, allow first the words and later your ideas to flow onto the paper freely without judging them. The technique is based on the principle of free association, which requires you to respond quickly, spontaneously, and completely uncritically to the chosen start word (and each subsequently following one).

Being and staying non-judgmental while free-associating or ideating is easier said than done, as most people have been conditioned to immediately judge their thoughts and ideas the moment they come to mind. Of course, such judgment violates the cardinal first ground rule of Ideation (#1. No killing of ideas. Defer judgment. #2. Go for quantity. Quantity breeds quality. #3. Shoot for wild, crazy, silly, weird, off-the-wall ideas. #4. Combine and improve your ideas).

Unlike most other methods such as Design Thinking, X-IDEA follows Ideation with a second creative stage (Development) that allows you to transform idea quantity into idea quality and wild ideas into meaningful concepts. So because X-IDEA has two distinct creative stages, we can engage in free-flowing creative thinking during Ideation without having to worry that an idea isn’t feasible or sensible. (Can you spot some of my wild ideas below in the illustration below?)

Branch out words from a center to get ideas

Another way to free-associate with words is to put a start word into the center and then branch out with related words following the same free-flowing principle as above (“This word makes me think of that new word”). As a result, you will create a concept map of words that you can use again as stimuli for your challenge.

The easiest way to build such a word concept map is to let your mind wander freely in a completely unstructured way. Alternatively, you can also use a more structured scheme. For instance, you can write related words into the fields of a mandala or a Lotus Blossom Matrix (a 3×3 matrix popularized by the Japanese consultant Yasuo Matsumura). In the example below, I show you another exciting structure that expands on your center word with a 4x4x4 word sequence:

Here, I started with the word “Record” that I spotted on a website and put into the center of the map. Next, I quickly noted down four words that came to my mind when thinking about the central word (“best time,” “account,” “note,” and “vinyl”). For each of these words, I jotted down four new related words that came to my mind (such as “track,” “watch,” “split-second,” and “next level” related to the word “best-time”). Finally, I wrote four more words to each of these other words, such as “split into pieces, “special moments,” “freeze frame,” “slow-motion” as words relating to “split seconds”). In the end, the free association yielded a word map with 84 diverse words derived from the central word “record.”

Now that we have created such a wide range of stimuli, it’s time to transform them into ideas for our kids’ ice cream challenge: “Launch ice cream concepts related to famous fairytale characters (such as Snow White or Pinocchio).” “Create a ‘Little Artist’ ice cream with a paint brush as ice cream stick,” “Use sports-like trophies as packaging for kids ice cream.” Or here is a wild idea: “Create an atomic ice cream bomb for kids.” And so on.

Conclusion: Conclusion: Play with words not only in crossword puzzles

Albert Einstein noted that “Creativity is intelligence having fun.” Playing with words by building a word chain or a word map using the principle of spontaneous free association is a fun way to boost your creativity whenever you need fresh, unconventional ideas for a challenge you’re working on alone or with your team. Try it out, and get ready to be surprised. 

  • What’s your favorite creativity technique apart from the highly popular, but inferior technique of Brainstorming? Feel invited to share your favorite tool with us.
  • Would you be interested to learn about our range of creative thinking training courses at Thinkergy? And here in particular about our structured creativity courses based on our award-winning X-IDEA method?
  • Contact us if you want us to help you develop creative competence and creative confidence of your team.

© Dr. Detlef Reis 2021