One of the visual brainstorming techniques the late David Bowie used to inspire unique songs and lyrics was to randomly arrange newspaper and magazine headlines and other short bits of text as catalysts for ideas. You can do the same thing today using a visual thinking tool called Mural.ly.
This “cut-up technique” was developed by artist Brion Gysin in 1959, when he adapted the montage art technique to printed words in an attempt to modernize the craft of creative writing. Its biggest proponent was American novelist William S. Burroughs, who further refined and popularized this type of visual brainstorming.
Here’s how it works: First, you cut headlines or phrases of text from newspapers and magazines. You can also use hand-written text, as shown above right. These become the catalysts for your brainstorming. You then move these strips into random combinations on a flat surface, and make notes on the creative ideas they suggest.
How to create a digital version of this visual brainstorming technique
To bring the cut-up technique into the digital age, I wondered if a web-based tool like Mural.ly, with its flexible canvas/workspace and its agnostic treatment of words, images and other forms of content, could be used to collect inspiring bits and pieces of ideas, and then to rearrange them into random combinations to spur new ideas.
I reasoned that the only way this visual brainstorming technique would work efficiently would be if Mural.ly enabled me to drag and drop content from another window into its workspace. So I experimented with it.
I opened a blank Mural.ly canvas in one window, and loaded a web page containing a blog post and several images in another window next to it. To my pleasant surprise, it worked like a charm. I was able to drag and drop images into Mural.ly quite easily. Each one appeared as a separate object. The real acid test was selecting 3-4 words of text and seeing if I could move them into Mural.ly. It worked! It required a bit of fussing with font size and style, because the text appeared very small, but it DID work!
My next experiment was to take a sampling of the 43 words Bowie used to inspire his songwriting for his album The Next Day, released in 2013. I was able to quickly grab a group of words and drag them into the Mural.ly workspace, one at a time. Since each word appeared with the application’s editing tool visible, I was able to quickly resize them with just a few clicks each. Then, for good measure, I located a picture of the iconic singer and composer, and added it to my mural.
Finally, I created a mood board of images related to the concept of storytelling, based on a Google image search and the drag-and-drop technique. This was the most fascinating experiment of all. The richness and variety of the images was astounding and very thought-provoking. In about 20 minutes, I was able to assemble a mood board that had my mind firing off in dozens of directions.
Mural.ly also enables you to search several image sources simultaneously from within the application’s workspace.
How can you use this technique for visual brainstorming?
After this positive experience brainstorming with Mural.ly, I invested some time brainstorming creative ways in which you can use it as a catalyst to develop new ideas:
- Gather a random assortment of images and text – including thought provoking quotes and your own insights, ideas and experiences. One of the techniques Bowie used, for example, was to cut up samples of text from his personal journals. This helped to ensure that some of the creative stimuli he was using was drawn from his own thoughts, insights and experiences.
- Insert words designed to help you think of your challenge from multiple perspectives, such as the idea modification words that make up the SCAMPER mnemonic.
- As you pull images and ideas into your mural, use the object caption to capture related keywords. Then do separate Google image searches on each of them. This will result in a greater variety of stimuli.
- If you’re brainstorming with a team, give each team member a keyword and ask them to perform a Google image search on it and select 10 images to add to a shared mural. This should widen the diversity of images you have to use as fodder for ideation.
- Do a team brainstorming session consisting of text input via sticky notes only. Let your team members know that they would free associate with their term on their own. After they have added their ideas to a shared mural, they should then view the ideas submitted by their colleagues, with a goal of using them as stepping stones to additional ideas.
- Use color coding to visually classify ideas.
- Use Mural.ly’s grouping capabilities to gather related ideas together, such as those that are worthy of further consideration or those you plan to implement.
Why not give David Bowie’s visual brainstorming technique a chance using Mural.ly? I predict you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the results, as I was.