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The Power of Off-the-Wall Combinations

By Jurgen Wolff | Posted September 8, 2007 | Updated June 25, 2019

An article in the Washington Post some time back featured cartoonist Matthew Diffee's method for coming up with his cartoons:

"I'll think of something," he says. "I just thought of a barn. What about a barn? A barn raising? Amish people? What about Amish people? They have those beards without moustaches. What would an Amish guy who had a moustache say to a guy who didn't? Those are ideas, but they're not good ideas. So you leave the Amish and you think: corn. And you come up with some bad corn ideas. But maybe one of the bad corn ideas combines with one of the bad Amish ideas and out of the blue, something comes to you."

This technique of combining unlikely elements in order to create something new occurs again and again in the arts, the sciences, and in business. Whatever you want to create, here's how you can apply this method:

Combining Unlikely Elements

1. Combine your challenge with a word picked randomly from a magazine.

Example: at the moment I'm writing a proposal for a book on anti-aging strategies (in collaboration with a medical specialist). I just opened a magazine and stuck my finger on the page and hit the word "scream." This reminds me to stress the pain that people will suffer, both physically and emotionally, if they don't take measures to improve their health. This will give the book a strongly emotional appeal.

2. Combine your challenge with an image picked randomly from a magazine.

Example: I just opened a magazine and the first image I saw was a police officer. This brings to mind the idea that the book should include innovative ways for people to "police" their new habits — in other words, how to maintain motivation once the novelty has worn off.

3. Combine your challenge with the opposite.

Example: the opposite of slowing down or reversing aging is speeding up aging. This gives me the idea of having a checklist of things that serve to speed up aging (for instance, smoking), so readers can see how many of these they engage in.

4. Combine your challenge with something you have done successfully (or someone else has).

By evoking a previous success, you also infuse your current challenge with some of that positive energy. Example: One of the things that people like best about my book, Your Writing Coach," are the video bonuses available on the website when you enter code words contained in the book. That will work just as well for the new book, even though the topic is totally different.

When you make these fun techniques a regular part of your brainstorming and problem-solving, you may be surprised at how many new ideas pop up.

©2007 Jurgen Wolff. All rights reserved.

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Jurgen WolffJurgen Wolff is a writer who teaches creativity and right-brain writing workshops around the world. He has written half a dozen books and his screen credits include the feature film, "The Real Howard Spitz," starring Kelsey Grammer and more than 100 produced episodes of various television series. ...

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