Build Your Business:

The Idea Generator: Part 2

In the second of this three-part series, discover how the power of randomness can inspire your creativity.

By Marshall Atkinson, Contributing Writer

Forced randomness involves grabbing a random object, like a soccer ball, and using it as a starting point for developing new ideas.

July 21, 2021

Hour after hour, day after day and week after week, you have to be creative and come up with fantastic new ideas that not only look great, but also sell. As time passes, things start to look stale.

Lazy thinkers resort to mirroring or copying past designs, or maybe incorporating designs from others after an online search. Don’t resort to that, especially when there are so many rich and powerful ideas surrounding you. Instead, use the power of “randomness” to help inspire you.

The following are a few mental exercises that will help you unlock a new idea. Be sure to jot them down so that you can try them later. First, I’ll suggest a pretend client project and show you a few ways that you could rapidly think up new ideas to use. An operative word for these exercises is the word “play,” as you need to relax and let your mind wander so that your imagination can run loose.

Here’s the scenario: A local restaurant has approached you for some shirts for their staff to wear and to potentially sell to customers. The name of the restaurant is Fred’s Bar and Grill, and the owner wants something creative and unique.

Random Words
I want to introduce you to the power behind connecting random words to form an idea. There are multiple ways to do this. Pick up a book, close your eyes, open the book to any page and — using your index finger — point to a word on the page and open your eyes. That’s the first word you can use. Then, grab a different book and repeat the process for the second word.

You also can use an online random-word generator for the same effect. This works best if you use between two and four randomly selected words. For our purposes, I selected four words:

  • Understanding
  • Plastic
  • Balance
  • Fragment

Once you have the words, you can doodle some designs using them for inspiration, blending them into the idea or using only one word. Here are some examples that came to mind in the order that my brain produced the ideas:

1. Fragment: Can we dice up the words in the restaurant’s name and shift them around a little bit? Imagine if the words or the logo were printed on glass and then slightly moved around. I can visualize a modern and sleek look for this type of design.
2. Balance: Create tension by stacking the words or letters vertically. Play with the visual weight of some of the letters or words to create asymmetrical balance.
3. Plastic: Among a sea of plastic pink flamingos is the Fred’s Bar and Grill logo. This is fun and quirky.
4. Understanding: I connect this to empathy. Maybe a big, bold headline — “FREE FRY FRIDAYS!” — and underneath: “We know what you crave!”

I like this technique because there isn’t a way to naturally predict what we’ll think. The images and notions come to us when we try to connect the randomly chosen words with the customer. The words stimulate your brain; if you’re open to receiving new ideas, they’ll flow to you. Don’t like the words you chose? Pick again; there are no rules here.

Index Cards
For a long time, I used index cards and it constantly drove some of my best work. It’s similar to the random-word generator but you’re purposely choosing the words. This can quickly be done with a cheap stack of index cards and a marker.

Jot down one word per card that you can use to shape your creative imagery. Here are some examples:

Shapes: “round,” “square,” “box,” “amoeba,” “cloud”
Colors: “black,” “red,” “green,” “brown,” “pink”
Power Words: “strong,” “bold,” “dense,” “thick,” “rough”
Weak Words: such as “thin,” “clear,” “smooth,” “small,” “light”
Descriptive Words: such as “brave,” “cheerful,” “sporty,” “old,” “clean”
Nouns: “time,” “thing,” “point,” “line,” “group”

Jot down as many words as you can think of in one sitting. The great thing about this trick is that you’ll stumble across a new word and want to add it to the stack.

Shuffle the index-card deck and pick three or four of them. Better yet, you can combine the two techniques. For example, choose the pink plastic flamingo idea and add these words for a place to start the design process:

  • Round
  • Bold
  • Thin
  • Sporty

After this, you can come up with some ideas to doodle. What about a round design that uses bold colors, like fluorescent pink, seafoam green and black? It can feature text with a sporty look. The flamingo illustrations have that classic minimalist style you see with professional sports logos. Double thin outlines with the pink and seafoam green colors give it a slight art-deco or neon look.

Random Things
This method may necessitate a field trip to Fred’s. If you can’t go in person, have someone give you a tour via video. What do you see? Is there something unique about the place that inspires you? Don’t start the process with your mind focused on one thing. Be open to the ideas that come to you and jot them down.

When you walk in the door, what’s the first thing you see? Maybe there’s a big fish tank front-and-center. What do you smell? Is there music? These are the things on which you can base a creative design. Maybe the smell of barbecue overwhelms you and gets your stomach rumbling. You could feature a slab of ribs, some fire and “Taste This” in big and bold letters on the back of the shirt. When you listen in, maybe you can hear a live band doing a sound check. This may lead you to the idea of a guitar-themed shirt.

The idea is that you have to be open to receiving random thoughts as you experience something. This is why I love asking questions and brainstorming with clients. Have them tell their story. What random mental images come to mind? Can you do something with that feedback?

Forced Randomness
Get up from your desk and go to a garage, outside or some other space. Pick up the first thing you see and take it back to your work area. This object will be the starting point for developing new ideas.

For my example, I grabbed a soccer ball. What does a soccer ball have to do with Fred’s Bar and Grill? Nothing. That’s the point.

Let’s see what I can develop:
It’s a ball. You kick a ball: “Happy Hour Kicks Off at 6 p.m.!”
It has a black-and-white pattern: Design a new logo with a similar pattern.
The ball is used in a game: “Game Night Every Monday!”
It’s used by a team: “Bring Your Team Down After the Game!”
You score with the ball: “Score Cheap Drinks and Apps Every Thursday at Fred’s”
A soccer game has time limits: “Happy Hour from 6 to 9”
Soccer has crazy fans: “Fred’s Lunatic Fan Club”
Soccer is played on grass, which is green: A green T-shirt design with the logo.
Soccer fans wear scarves: Design a new line of Fred’s scarves.
Soccer fans are boisterous and loud: “Loud Music Rules at Fred’s”

You can do this trick with any object and for any purpose. The ideas don’t even have to make sense; sometimes the weirdest things can lead to better ideas. Keep thinking and make sure you write the ideas down. Start doodling and creating thumbnails as you go. This is where the magic happens.

Active Creative Thinking
If you use these techniques, the final product will come from you and will be the result of how you see things. Using the same stimulus and origination point, I may think up an entire series of different ideas. That’s because we’re different people. How you connect different objects or ideas is the basis for the random idea generator.

What do the word “black,” a flower, a 1967 pickup truck and a circle have in common? I don’t know, but that could be a fantastic T-shirt design if you somehow combine them. Think about how you organize information as it comes to you. Can you develop new patterns or connections?

For example, using the four aforementioned ideas, would you make the flower black or would the pickup truck be black? Is everything black or is that a starter color? Are you using contrasting colors like yellow to make things pop? If “Fred’s Bar and Grill” were incorporated in the design, where would you put it? Would it go above everything like a headline, or more subtle like a painted-door logo on the truck? I don’t know why, but I immediately want to put a surfboard in the bed of the truck.

Could you have arrived at that mental image without these random word choices? Maybe, but who knows? Try these methods, and when someone asks you how you come up with amazing designs, you can say, “Sometimes the ideas just come to you.”

Marshall Atkinson, owner of Atkinson Consulting LLC, is a decorated-apparel industry production and efficiency expert who focuses on operational efficiency; continuous improvement and workflow strategy; business planning; employee motivation; management; and sustainability. He also co-founded a decorated-apparel industry sales and marketing education company called Shirt Lab. For more information or to comment on this article, email Marshall at