“That which is static and repetitive is boring. That which is dynamic and random is confusing. In between lies art,” said the English philosopher John Locke. Randomness is a great way to force your thinking to follow unfamiliar paths.

In my last column, I discussed how creative people pay attention to random events and use them to help come up with their ideas. I talked about three methods for generating random events — random word, random picture, and random movie — and today I will give you five more ways to use randomness when creating ideas.

As before, we’ll use a sample challenge to illustrate these idea generation methods. Imagine that you have a deep passion for coffee, and you want to launch a new high-end coffee shop. You define your challenge as, “How to create meaningful new concepts for a coffee shop?”

4. Random song

Tune your radio to your favorite station, and listen to the first song you hear. If you don’t know it well, find the lyrics online and watch the music video on YouTube. Use all of this to stimulate ideas.

In our example, suppose we tuned to an online radio station, and the song that was playing was “Pocketful of Sunshine” by Natasha Bedingfield. We would look up the lyrics — “Take me away, A secret place, A sweet escape”; “There’s a place that I go / that nobody knows / where the rivers flow / and I call it home / and there’s no more lies / and the darkness is light / and nobody cries / there’s only butterflies” — as well as the video, which shows the artist parachuting out of the window of an office building to flee her complaining boss, later to meditate in a large lotus blossom.

From these inputs, we might create these ideas:

  • Open a garden coffee shop in a greenhouse with butterflies and only glass above.
  • Design the seating in the shape of lotus flowers.
  • Brand the coffee shop as “Your Home Away From Home”.
  • Hang a parachute from the ceiling to evoke freedom and flight.
  • Create a cake called “Sweet Escape”.

5. Random quote

Many people use quotations for daily inspiration, and these, as well as randomly selected quotations, are a perfect source of creative stimulation. To find quotations, flip through a book of them, or visit a quotations site like quotationspage.com.

For our example, at that site we find these quotations:

  • Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so. — Douglas Adams
  • To you I’m an atheist; to God, I’m the Loyal Opposition. — Woody Allen
  • The trouble about trying to make yourself stupider than you really are is that you very often succeed. — C.S. Lewis

List things associated with the quotes, and then use both the quotes and the associations to spark new ideas. For our coffee shop challenge, these might be:

  • Start a coffee and pastry delivery service for busy business workers under the name “Lunch is for Wimps” (Gordon Gekko said this in the movie Wall Street).
  • Add a tea bar to your coffee shop to attract “the loyal opposition”, i.e., tea lovers.
  • Have workshops where coffee lovers can share their expertise with each other.
  • Have a “No Mean People” rule, with a strict no-tolerance approach towards employees and customers who act like jerks.

6. Random walk

Get out of the office. Walk through a market or a mall, a park or a forest, and make note of anything unusual that you pass by.

For our challenge, if we were walking in Ho Chi Minh City, we might pass a man selling live fish in plastic bags from his bicycle, then see two wild pheasants in a part of town that had been recently forcibly depopulated — nature returns as soon as man leaves — and then we might discover that the ferry across the river had stopped running because the people who used to use it no longer lived there. These observations could give us these ideas:

  • Build a jungle-themed coffee shop.
  • Have a giant aquarium in the coffee shop.
  • Build a coffee shop island with a moat full of koi, and a ferry service across the moat.
  • Open a coffee shop on a ferryboat.

7. Random event

Finally, something you can do all the time, every day, is pay attention to what happens around you. When you see something unusual or unexpected, try to associate it with your challenge, and see if something clicks. After all, Isaac Newton’s thinking about gravitation was inspired by his noticing an apple falling from a tree.

Suppose we were walking through Lumphini Park and happened to notice two monitor lizards mating. Even this might give us the idea, “have a customer photo gallery, titled ‘Coffee Lovers are Better Lovers’, where single patrons can advertise themselves”.


One secret to the success of creative people is that they embrace randomness, and use random events to create ideas for their challenges. They agree with the Greek philosopher Heraclitus that “The most beautiful order is a heap of sweepings piled up at random.”

There are many more ways to use randomness to generate ideas. For example, you might choose a random person — pick a celebrity whose birthday is today, or chat with the eighth person who comes around the corner — a random TV channel —enter a random number into the TV remote, then watch that channel for 5 minutes — or a random object — go for a walk and collect the first unusual object that you see. Whatever method you use, for the best results give up control and open yourself up to randomness.


This article is also published in parallel in the Bangkok Post on September 12 2013.
© Dr. Detlef Reis 2013.