How Ideas Take Flight in Creative Agencies: The Two Most Famous Checklists in the World

Creative Ideas Checklist
Where creative ideas are applied: Filming at the Filmstudio Hannover | © Photo: Ximpix

Being creative is not just about being kissed by the muse and having the best ideas possible. The secret of success of many creative agencies lies in constantly and purposefully questioning and further elaborating their own initial approaches to solving problems – because ideas are nothing else. Not infrequently, it is only in this second step that those solution proposals emerge that are ultimately implemented and inspire.

“Having ideas is heaven. Working them out is hell.” Anyone who works in the creative industries knows how much truth there is in this statement.

While today digital moving images can be used to create almost anything the human brain is capable of thinking and inventing, there are other professions where this is not the case. There you will find interesting and proven checklists for the makers of image films and other forms of commissioned production, which help to optimise ideas with regard to creativity, originality and effect.

The aircraft industry is a good example of this. There too, and not just since Howard Hughes, grandiose visionaries have been romping about. Only: Unlike in film, the laws of aerodynamics and physics must also be observed here. This means that every idea, no matter how good it is, must necessarily be adapted to further framework conditions. Not all of these specifications are, at first glance, conducive to creativity. Just as in a video production not every customer wish and every customer specification automatically coincides with the first best idea.

Creativity often begins with abstraction.
Ahmad Mohammadi

This article explains the two most famous checklists in the world for optimizing creative ideas. These are effective, internationally proven, easy to use and therefore 100% practical.

You have to know that

  • Ideas have to be realizable. Otherwise they are worthless. This field of tension does not only concern filmmakers. It affects engineers even more, for example.
  • For more than eighty years, therefore, there have been models for the systematic improvement of ideas.
  • Probably the best known principle for this is the “Zwicky box”, a multi-dimensional matrix.
  • Equally famous is advertiser Alex F. Osborn’s list of questions. Almost all checklists for creativity, according to the SCAMPER principle, are based on this list.

A checklist for improving creative ideas?

As early as the 1930s, research was carried out in the United States at the California Institute of Technology to find a system for the systematic improvement of creative ideas.

The idea behind it: To develop a kind of construction kit system for creativity, which combines original ideas with feasibility, has wide applicability and is easy to understand even for laymen. For Fritz Zwicky (* 1898 in Bulgaria, † 1974 in Pasadena, California) this was the perfect challenge.

Zwicky, an American physicist with a Swiss passport, was involved in the development of new types of aircraft engines in the USA at the time. In the process, visions and reality collided hard with each proposal for an innovation. Fed up with these seemingly irreconcilable contradictions, which in the end doomed each of his creative concepts to mediocrity, Zwicky developed a checklist he called the morphological box.

This optimization model for ideas is now known worldwide as the “Zwicky Box”.

1Creative secret weapon: The Zwicky Box

The word morphology means form, sense and reason. As an academic, Zwicky was experienced and smart enough to know that a Greek name – which knowingly gave no indication of the creative intentions behind it – would help the checklist gain widespread acceptance from management and work colleagues.

The scheme for analyzing and improving creative ideas, the Zwicky Box, is nothing more than a multidimensional matrix. Their goal: to bring creativity and meaningfulness into harmony. The Zwicky Box proved to be particularly useful when a team assessed the potential and quality of creative approaches differently. Or to develop an idea in teamwork – the word brainstorming was not yet common at that time. However, the morphological box as a creativity technique can also be used successfully in a quiet room as a lone wolf.

The Zwicky Box can be described as follows 1

  1. For a question, the compelling elements are defined first. For a video, these are, for example: Distribution channel, target group, core message.
  2. Then, to the right of each of these factors, one writes the theoretically conceivable, different solutions to the problems. In this way a table is created. The indispensable specifications are shown horizontally, and the various creative ideas for solutions are shown vertically in the columns.
  3. The next step is to circle the best proposed solution for each compelling element. Either this is done intuitively or with a systematic approach that has been discussed and agreed upon in advance with the client or team.

So that the result in the application of this creative checklist does not turn out too complex, one can additionally weight the compiled characteristics or solutions with a score according to differentcriteria.

Fritz Zwicky Morphological Box
The inventor of the creativity box named after him: Fritz Zwicky | © Photo: Pinterest

Examples of weighting criteria for a film or video project could be: the cost of producing the video, suitability for multilingualism, and so on.

The Zwicky Box can also be extended from a two-dimensional model to three dimensions for nimble thinkers and creative minds with a high capacity for abstraction. In this case, another axis is added. This creates a new three-dimensional matrix with the three-dimensional “spatial depth” of the box. The principle remains the same: on each individual axis, the feature that is found to be good is determined.

Theoretically, the dimensions of the creative content checklist can be extended to any number of dimensions, theoretically up to ten or more. However, this is only useful to a limited extent. Above a certain level of complexity, the work becomes extremely demanding – in practice in group work, four-dimensional lists are only comprehensible to a minority of the participants in a brainstorming session.

References: 1 Slightly simplified presentation. Read more: Morphological box / Zwicky box as a creativity technique

2Osborne: 7 questions for optimizing creative ideas

Equally successful, but entirely different, was the approach taken by the founder of the world-famous advertising agency BBDO in optimizing creative problems in his renowned creative agency. Alex Osborne (* 1888 to † 1966) examined every creative idea from his agency team with seven simple questions to see if they could not be improved even further.

The seven questions in Osborne’s checklist for optimizing creative ideas are 1.

  1. Does the idea get better if you change one element in it? This can be a person, an action element, or some other component. (The technical term for this work step is: Substitution = Replace / Exchange)
  2. Is it possible to combine individual points that make up the creative idea? Condense them, simplify them or make them stronger? Does the combination make the idea better or worse?
  3. Reviewed whether to adjust individual items in the concept. Typical types of adaptation, not only in a video, are the strengthening or weakening of individual action elements and thus changing their significance in the overall concept.
  4. What happens when individual elements are not exchanged, combined or adapted, but radically changed? Transferred to an image film: What happens if, for example, the audio level (orchestration, off-voice) is changed? Or the way it’s visualized (camera work, pacing, etc.)?
  5. Does the creative concept really fit the purpose for which it was created? Are there more promising forms of application? (Should the video concept be implemented as an image video or, for example, alternatively, with more impact, as a documentary (with image impact)?
  6. What can be deleted without replacement? Experienced screenwriters and filmmakers know: The art of omission is where the true professional reveals himself. Nothing is more difficult. Nothing is more effective than reduction.
  7. When you turn things inside out, is the creative concept stronger, more surprising, more effective? It’s the tried and true inverse: “Dog bites man” as a headline doesn’t interest anyone. It’s different with “Man Bites Dog.”

The 7-part checklist according to Alex Osborne illustrates in an unsurpassed way why an idea alone is not enough.

First, because an idea is just an idea. Secondly, because only the optimisation of a film idea makes it unique in almost all cases, but often also makes it realisable in the first place.

References: 1 Simplified presentation, revised and supplemented by Bob Eberle based on his checklist SCAMPER. The 7 questions in the checklist are often used with further questions on details – subordinate to the main questions. Read more: Osborn Checklist


Creative ideas need to be developed. Literally. Many flashes of inspiration that fly in turn out, upon careful analysis, to be less developed than convoluted. Successful creative agencies are aware of this. To ensure that the best idea is presented to the client rather than the first, agencies therefore work with checklists such as Osborne’s question list or the Zwicky Box.

Because successful storytelling videos are no coincidences – but always the result of elaborate, structured work.

This article was automatically translated into English using AI. If you would like to help us improve the quality, we would be happy to hear from you.

Ahmad Mohammadi
About Ahmad Mohammadi 2 Articles
Ahmad Mohammadi ist CEO und Inhaber der Kreativagentur XIMPIX. Das Unternehmen in Hannover besitzt Kompetenzen im Marketing wie auch in der Filmproduktion. Website und Kontakt: XIMPIX

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