Sunday, September 30, 2007

Tapping into your subconscious for ideas

The Jakarta Post,
Features, 30 September 2007
Dewi Susanti & Kayee Man

Have you ever woken up from a dream with a weird, but reassuring feeling that you'd solved a problem that has been bugging you for a while?

Unfortunately, we don't come up with solutions to our problems through dreams very often, as our dreams are often disjointed from reality. But through dreams, psychologists -- pioneered by Sigmund Freud -- have attempted to peek into humans' subconscious minds to reveal the troubled souls within.

But we could use our dreams to come up with unusual ideas and think outside of the box, so to speak. Unusual ideas are often what give us a competitive edge.

Suppose you want to open a restaurant because, well, great restaurants draw a lot of people in, and we all know that restaurants have potential for high profit margins. But what makes restaurants great?

People, services, and products come to mind when we think about great experiences we've had in restaurants. But many stores in developed countries have evolved beyond these basics to cater for many varieties of needs and to create experiences for their customers.

A good example is the REI store in Seattle that not only sells outdoor gear, but also boasts a 20-meter-high climbing "mountain", a 155-meter-long hiking trail, 30 pitched tents, a Rain Room to check whether the gear is truly waterproof -- even a dirty pool for campers to test water purifiers."

By the end of its first year, REI store was visited by 1.5 million people, and designated as a National Park Service information station (Kelley, 2001: 196, 203).

The REI not only sells products; they are selling experiences. Unusual experiences draw people in.

You may start wondering then, how one could come up with great ideas for restaurants? We could start with people, services, and products as the basic ingredients for great experiences we've had in restaurants.

But rather than thinking about these categories in our usual way, let's think about them independently from one another and see what great ideas we can come up with.

'Forced association' produces ideas

Let's start with the people. What kinds of people can you think of? You may want to brainstorm first, independent of your idea for a great restaurant. Our list includes: grandmothers, children, pilots, students, astronauts, rock climber, fisherman, soccer player, dancer, musicians, etc.

Then think of the kinds of people you want to attract and whom should you employ?

Next, brainstorm about services. Our list includes the obviously related dining services (restaurants, cafes, airplane food service, etc.) and other unrelated services such as postal services, the Internet, graphic design services, travel agents, call centers, real estate agents, brokers, florists, etc. What kind of services would you want to provide through this restaurant?

Finally, consider the products. Directly restaurant-related are types of food (Italian, Chinese, French, Vietnamese, Mongolian, Ethiopian, Spanish, etc.) and drinks (soft drinks, punches, coffees, teas, smoothies, alcoholic drinks, etc.).

But let's branch out a little to think of other products that are not related to restaurants. Here's what we come up with: art papers, books, clothing, camera, eyeglasses, bags, gadgets, shoes, golf clubs, and so on. What products could you sell in the restaurant?

Suppose we are open to any kind of ideas for this restaurant; we may want to go for the kinds of restaurants that do not already exist in Jakarta. How do we go about it?

One way to find ideas is through an idea finding tool known as "forced association", which is also a term introduced by Freud.

To engage in forced association, we simply pick randomly our separate ideas from each of the three categories above (people, services, and products). Let's say we get grandmothers, florists, and camera. What ideas could you get from these words?

Well, perhaps the restaurant is the place where grandmothers could come and learn making flower arrangements, which would be displayed in this restaurant for picture-taking moments with the whole family. So it's a fun and emotion-arousing restaurant full of families and flowers.

Let's try other random picks through the categories. Say we have rock climbers, graphic design services, and smoothies. Perhaps the restaurant could have a rock climbing wall and sell nutrient-filled smoothies for health conscious young entrepreneurs.

But where does that leave the graphic design services? We could think of it literally as a two-in-one lounge and graphic design house, or it could be a restaurant where everything is designed and packaged to make you become conscious of health and the environment.

Our family restaurant full of families and flowers, or a healthy lounge for entrepreneurs, or a fully-designed experience of good healthy food, fun and environmentally conscious experiences are unusual experiences (which by the way, we haven't seen in any restaurants here in Jakarta).

By forced associating three words from three categories, you could come up with your own ideas for restaurants with unusual experiences. And who knows, if you really have the motivation and start-up capital, you could actually implement one that you think would make a good business.

Delving into the subconscious

Now that we hope we have convinced you with why we should go for unusual ideas, it's time to persuade you into the idea of tapping into your subconscious mind.

But after having kept you attention throughout the entire article, we actually no longer need to persuade you, as forced association is one of the tools that help us gain subconscious-like ideas. So without realizing it, we have led you through the thinking process needed to trigger your own subconscious-like ideas.

If forced association is not to your liking, there are other ways of getting unusual, subconscious-like ideas too. In the 1920s, when Freud's ideas of psychoanalysis had gained some popularity, tapping into the subconscious mind was one of the main fascinations of art movements known as Dada.

Some of its exponents later founded Surrealism -- whose better-known artists include Rene Magritte (whose painting is featured in the film The Thomas Crown Affair, with Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo) and Salvador Dali (whose painting of soft watches, better known in the art world known as The Persistence of Memory, is one of his most-remembered paintings).

The Surrealists created many devices to purposefully get non-logical ideas; one of them is forced association, which has been described at length by us above. The Surrealists also use another tool called cadavre exquis (exquisite corpse), which when applied in writing, is a form of idea-generating process that involves several people coming up with a story line without a set target (no, we didn't use this technique to write this article!)

If you are familiar with the discussion groups in Facebook, the social utility on the Internet, you would probably know this game: someone starts a post with a three-word sentence, then another posts additional three-word sentence, and so on until some kind of story line is gained through the process. This is one form of cadavre exquis.

A more visual method, collage, is also one of the tools widely used by the Surrealists. A collage is a picture that is created by cutting and pasting parts from different pictures, prints, photos, newspapers, magazines, clothes, found objects, and almost everything you could think of onto a common surface.

You can try this: think of a problem for a few minutes then put it out of your mind. Get some old magazines and/or objects, let your mind go and start cutting, arranging and pasting.

When you feel (note: not think) you are done, return to the problem you started off with and see if you can gain insights to how your visual piece relates to or give you ideas to solve your problem.

What you could get through these tools are unusual ideas or images that may be completely abstract or bizarre, but may reveal your subconscious mind and may give you ideas on how to solve the problem you are facing.

At the very least, going through this kind of thinking process will not only train your thinking and imagining capacity, but is a lot of fun and entertaining.

Ergo: Tap into your subconscious mind!