Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

Never Brainstorm with a "Blank Slate"

Consider the following two statements:You can do anything you want.

You can do anything you want with this box of colored pencils.

Like most option-obsessed humans, you might prefer the limitless potential of the first statement. And like most creatives, you might believe this “blank slate” is an essential element of your ideation process. But Will Turnage, VP of Technology and Invention at digital advertising agency R/GA, thinks you’re wrong.

As the man in charge of guiding and developing R/GA’s groundbreaking digital products, Will believes that paying respects to the unique capabilities of individual mediums builds the most efficient bridge to great work.

Step inside R/GA’s Manhattan offices, and you’ll likely find Turnage and his team engaged in a practice he calls, “Technology First.” Like the colored pencil example, Technology First starts by selecting a very specific medium for communication, then creatively exploits its full potential.

In other words, it’s the opposite of blank slate. And according to R/GA, this approach creates a powerful informational framework for ideas to emerge, with benefits that include more efficient ideation, faster implementation times, and better campaigns.


Technology First starts by selecting a very specific medium for communication, then creatively exploits its full potential.

For R/GA’s roster of international clients, this hyper-focused constriction has resulted in highly creative, highly effective digital work. Like the Nike+ mobile app, where focusing on Facebook’s “Like” technology led R/GA to produce an imaginative twist on standard tech. By rigging status updates submitted through the app to trigger applause, runners can now spread the word of their athletic activity online with a status update — and their friends can literally cheer them on through their headphones by “Liking” that activity.

Or The Digital Dinner Bell, an Android app for spice and seasoning brand Lawry’s. The creative process for this app began with the question, “If you could shake your phone like a dinner bell, what useful activity might that create?” Today, parents can automatically text message their families about what’s for dinner and when it’s ready, just by “ringing the bell.”

“When we sit down to brainstorm, we don’t ask ourselves, How can we use technology to reach this brand’s objectives?” says Will. “We’re very specific – How can we use the technology behind Facebook’s ‘Like’ function to reach this brand’s objectives?”

Hatching a strong creative concept is never easy, so we asked Will for his tips on thinking with a “Technology First” mindset.

Enable creative thinking by embracing arbitrary constraints. What if your idea only worked between 2:13 p.m. and 2:15 p.m. each day? What if your mobile app could only show one sentence and one button at a time? “You’re basically saying, look, you’ve got text, links, and 140 characters,” says Will. “What can we do with that? It’s normally a lot more than you think.”

Put emotional adjectives in front of specific technologies. What does a sad tweet, ecstatic check-in, or head-over-heels text message look like?  How does it work? This exercise can loosen up your team and get the creativity flowing.

Pick an everyday interaction and internet-enable it.  What if the door knob to your conference room had a Tumblr?  What would it do? What would it say?

How about you?

What brainstorming constraints does your team use?

Carmel Hagen

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Carmel Hagen is the founder and CEO of Sweet Revenge Sugar Co., a company developing mindfully delicious alternatives to refined sugar. For creative kitchen inspiration and mixologist tips, follow Sweet Revenge on Instagram at @enjoyrevenge or visit
load comments (8)
  • Christian Rooney

    I agree with this! It reminds me a bit of Jack White, who feels that by restricting what he can make music on (only analog recording equipment), he maximizes his creativity.

  • Ajay Karwal

    This reminds me of this article – http://www.graphicdesignblende

    It’s definitely good to have some boundaries in place. A blank slate can be quite daunting.

  • James Lawther

    You only need look at the advances in technology during the second world war to see how constraints can boost creativity.

    Very interesting article

  • Simon Paul

    Yes, this is totally true! I hate designing with no specificity. I’m a problem solver by heart as a designer. And that means I need the problem defined to be effective at what I do. Classifying goals and mediums, for which a project will be executed, greatly improves both efficiency and effectiveness of my work.

  • Chris

    This post is awesome! Thanks to the author.

  • Robert Schreib

    Always have some medium of recording ideas on or near you, since it’s impossible to tell when your muse will hit you with a thunderbolt! But you have to write or record it on the spot, or your stream of consciousness might wash the idea away if you just think you can retain it later. WRITE IT DOWN!-NTH!

  • bassamtarazi

    You can do anything but you can’t do everything. This is the statement I think of when I read this post. We are horrible when there is too much choice because we fear “the wrong choice” and what that choice might feel like (see: regret).

    It’s amazing what happens when we apply constraints to a problem. We actually feel less pressure. My favorite constraint is the time implemented one. I don’t worry about writing a blog post or an article in a sitting, I like trying to see what I can write in 10 or 15 minutes. I find that I write much more freely in that scenario than when I sit looking at a blinking cursor with every possible literary option right in front of me.

  • Web Outsourcing Gateway

    Brainstorming with a “blank slate” is like going with the flow of the situation, you have no plan, no agenda, no direction which leads you to nowhere.

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