Each post in the Practice Profile series captures the distinct perspective of one individual, in order to highlight some of the ways a personal creative practice can impact professional practices.  Recently I asked Paul Williams, founder of Idea Sandbox, what he relies upon to maintain his inimitable style of playful creativity.  In this Practice Profile, Paul shares some of the tactics that aid him in his work as a professional problem solver.

Paul’s first suggestion: Write It Down.  He explains,

“That situation or problem you thought about last week has been mulling in the back of your brain.  Our brains fire out ideas when we do things that don’t require a lot of thought, when doing things that are routine.  Driving to work.  Taking a shower.  Exercising.

For me it is the shower.  I’ll be struck with a brilliant idea, an idea so great I know I’ll remember it.  Only to lose it when another idea hits.  So, I bought a diver’s slate.  A small piece of white plastic with a pencil attached to it.  This is what underwater divers use to make notes.”

Although it would be convenient if the ideation process occurred in an orderly fashion, that just isn’t the case.  Any idea is just one of many possibilities.  And, as Paul describes, often when the possibilities begin to flow they flow fast and furious!  When problem solving, capturing ideas in their earliest stage is an important step in reaching a refined and quality solution; much like the artist or designer whose process begins with rough sketches in order to eventually yield a refined composition or design.  While the habit of keeping a notebook to capture ideas is not a new method, relying on a diver’s slate in the shower spins that concept, making it quite an effective variation of the norm!

Paul was clear that he always has something to capture thoughts and ideas, whether it is the Notes app on his iPhone or a Field Notes brand book and pen.  His philosophy is simple: it doesn’t matter what you use—as long as you are using something.

Another technique Paul recommends is mind mapping.  He maintains that part of the value in mind mapping is the ability to represent certain connections in a visual fashion.

In his words,

“We get uncomfortable when new ideas are so different they do not link with old ideas. It makes us nervous.  Feels risky.  As a result remarkable ideas are often not adopted or modified so they feel more familiar (and ultimately no longer remarkable).”

The visual nature of a mind map makes it easier to observe what connects the new with the old.  Seeing the relationship between the ideas tangibly expressed on the page can help to mitigate some of the nervousness around a new idea. Paul suggests that this type of nervousness, “is one of the problems with the adoption of new ideas within organizations.”

Reluctance may accompany the unfamiliar, but, when evaluating possibilities, we benefit from the willingness to put reluctance and judgement aside.  Taking the time to pay attention to unrelated facts and ideas, even if the information initially seems at odds, can make all the difference.  Such was the case with an example Paul shared about exploring the common ground between farming and advertising:

“An ad agency was experiencing employee churn.  Designers would often quit after only working for 9 months or so, complaining they felt ‘burned out.’

The problem caused me to remember a lesson about farming.  If you planted the same crop in the same field too many times – the soil would become tired, lose nutrients, and not produce.

I wondered if the same way you kept soil productive and nutrient-rich would work for the agency.  Instead of designers doing the same type work until they became worn out, what if they rotated the types of projects they worked on?

The firm tried the idea – and everyone was happy. Designers cross-trained for a variety of project types.  This enhanced productivity and made for an overall more creative team!  And, instead of specializing, having a depth and breath of knowledge made each designer better at all types of projects.

While this technique – stealing and applying ideas from seemingly unrelated fields – isn’t the ONLY tool in my creative shed, it is one that has come in handy many times.”

When asked about his personal practice, and how it informs his professional practice, Paul replied,

“There is a great quote by British historian Arnold J. Toynbee.  It goes something like this… ‘The supreme accomplishment is to blur the line between work and play.’  For me being creative is fun, so when I do it for work – it is always play.”

Whether the line is between farming and advertising or work and play (or anything else) very often it is our willingness to blur the line that leads to the most creative outcomes!


Paul Williams is the founder of Idea Sandbox, a brainstormer and professional problem solver. Through hand-crafted strategy and brainstorm sessions he helps people create remarkable ideas to grow their business. As one client put it, “Idea Sandbox turns brains into idea machines.”

Paul has spent the past 20 years building marketing, branding, and customer-experience strategy for The Disney Company, the Aramark Corporation, and Starbucks Coffee Company. He founded Idea Sandbox in 2005 driven by his passion to help others create remarkable ideas. He blends the skills and lessons he has learned through the years to build a sandbox – an idea sandbox.

He help brands solve challenges, grow their brand, think-up remarkable ideas, and create innovation. Clients include: Starbucks Coffee Company, Starbucks Coffee International, Panera Bread Company, Seattle’s Best Coffee, BGR The Burger Joint, USA TODAY, Woodhouse Day Spas, The Microsoft Corporation, and Wells Fargo Mortgage.

He lives just outside Washington DC in Alexandria, Virginia.

© 2012