How to improve creative ideas: The two most famous checklists in the world

Improve creative ideas
How to improve creative ideas | © Grafik: FreePik

Being creative does not necessarily mean always creating something new. Often, what one calls creative ideas is also about improving what already exists. There are proven recipes for this.

“Having ideas is heavenly. Working them out is hell.” Anyone working in the creative industries knows how much truth there is in this statement about creative ideas. But this maxim also applies to other professional groups. While today you can realize almost everything that the human brain is capable of thinking and inventing with a video or in a film, there are other professional fields where this is not the case. And it is precisely here that the makers of image films and other forms of commissioned production find interesting and proven solution models.

For example in the aircraft industry. There too, not only since Howard Hughes, grandiose visionaries have been romping about. But unlike film, the laws of aerodynamics and physics must also be observed here. This means that every idea, however good it may be, must be adapted to further, compelling conditions.

This article shows you the two most famous checklists in the world for optimizing creative ideas. Simply explained. Effective and practical.

What you need to know

  • As is well known, creative ideas must be able to be realised. Otherwise they are worthless. This field of tension not only affects filmmakers. It affects engineers even more, for example.
  • For more than eighty years, models for the systematic improvement of ideas have been available.
  • Probably the best known principle for this is the “Zwicky-Box”, a multidimensional table (matrix).
  • Equally famous is the question catalogue of the advertiser Alex F. Osborn. Current checklists, according to the SCAMPER principle, are also based on it.

A checklist for creative ideas?

As early as the 1930s, the California Institute of Technology was researching methods to create a system for the systematic improvement of ideas.

Fritz Zwicky Morphological Box
Fritz Zwicky | © Foto: Pinterest

The idea behind it: To develop a kind of modular system for creativity, which combines creative ideas with feasibility.

For Fritz Zwicky (* 1898 in Bulgaria, † 1974 in Pasadena, California) this was the perfect challenge.

The physicist with a Swiss passport was at that time involved in the development of new types of aircraft engines in the USA. In the process, visions and reality clashed hard.

As a result, Zwicky developed what he called the morphological box. Don’t let this term put you off. The term sounds far more complicated than the concept is in practice!

1Be creative with the Zwicky Box

The word morphology comes from the Greek. It means form, sense, doctrine and reason. It is therefore about bringing creativity and meaningfulness into harmony.

The scheme for analysing and improving creative ideas – also known as “Zwicky Box” – is nothing more than a multidimensional matrix.

The Zwicky Box is particularly useful when a team is evaluating different creative approaches. Or developed cooperatively in teamwork.

Nevertheless, the morphological box as a creativity technique can also be used successfully as a lone fighter in a quiet chamber.

Find and improve ideas with the morphological box

The morphological box (Zwicky Box) works like this (simplified representation)

  • For a question, the mandatory elements are first defined. For a car, for example, these are: engine, wheels, seats, luggage compartment, etc.
  • Afterwards, the theoretically conceivable, different solutions are written on the right for each of these factors. Thus a table is created. The specifications are shown horizontally, the different solution ideas are shown vertically in the columns.
  • In the next step, the best solution suggestion for each mandatory element is circled. Either this is done intuitively. Or with a systematic approach that has been previously defined and agreed upon.

In order that the result is not too complex, the characteristics or solutions can also be weighted. For example, according to the degree of difficulty of the implementation.

The Zwicky-Box can be extended from 2 dimensions to a model in 3 dimensions. In this case a further axis is added. The result is a three-dimensional matrix. The principle remains the same: After creating the box, the feature that is considered good is selected on each axis.

Theoretically, the number of axes can be expanded as desired, from three to four dimensions, and theoretically to ten or more dimensions. This is only of limited use. Above a certain level of complexity, subsequent implementation is extremely demanding – or even impossible.

2Checklist according to Alex Osborne

Somewhat less scientific, but equally successful, the founder of the advertising agency BBDO has taken a proactive approach to creative problems.

Alex Osborne (* 1888 to † 1966) examined each creative idea with seven simple questions to see if it could be improved.

7 questions to optimize creativity

The seven main questions are (simplified presentation, revised and supplemented by Bob Eberle based on his SCAMPER checklist)

  1. Does the creative idea get better when you exchange something? This can be a person, an action element or any other component. (The technical term for this is: Substitution = Replace / Exchange)
  2. Is it possible to combine individual elements that make up the creative idea? Condense, simplify or make things stronger?
  3. Does the combination make the idea better or worse?
  4. Was it checked whether individual points in the concept should be adjusted. 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.
  5. What happens if 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 type of visualization (camera work, pacing, etc.)?
  6. 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 alternatively, for example, with more impact, as documentation (with image effect)?
  7. What can be deleted without replacement? Experienced screenwriters and filmmakers know: The true professional is revealed in the art of omission. Nothing is more difficult. Nothing is more effective than reduction.
  8. If you turn things into their opposite, is the creative concept stronger, more surprising, more effective? This is the proven principle of reversal: “Dog bites man” as a headline interests no one. 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 it is only the optimization of a film idea that makes it unique in almost all cases, but often it is also the only way to implement it.

More about creative ideas

Film tip (mentioned in the article)

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