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Finding Instructional Design Inspiration and Creativity from Unlikely Places


Walking through a lava field in Hawaii a few years ago, I turned to my wife and told her that this was such an inspirational experience… I was getting all sorts of ideas of how to connect this amazing hike with my learning and development projects. She shook her head and told me I had a one track mind.

Are some people naturally more creative than others? Perhaps. But I think like most other things, creativity is a skill set that can be developed over time for anyone who is interested in making their training programs more interesting, engaging, fun, unique and memorable.

If you’re truly interested in building your creative muscle, here are five exercises that might help.

1. Stop and look around.

Seriously, stop whatever it is that you’re doing right now and take a look around. Whether you’re on the bus to work, sitting in front of your computer, “multitasking” during a staff meeting, wherever you are – what do  you see around you? What’s the third thing you looked at after I asked you to stop and look around? How can it inspire a new way of approaching the topic of an upcoming training project or presentation?

As I write this, the third thing I noticed is a framed photo from my wedding day, hanging next to the front door in our house. Instead of a guest book, we asked everyone to simply sign the matting so that we can remember everyone who was at our wedding, every morning as we head out the door.

Wedding Pic

I’ll actually be using this same idea next week at an all-hands retreat. I can’t say too much more about how I plan to use this inspiration during that retreat (because several of the attendees read this blog and I’d hate to ruin the surprise), but the point is: creative inspiration can be found in things we walk by every day and take for granted.

Maybe you’re in the grocery store, scrolling through this post as you wait in line to pay for your groceries. Something you may see as you stop and look around might be a variety of magazines with quizzes inside – Cosmopolitan, Seventeen magazine and a host of others have these sorts of quizzes. I applied this idea to a lesson on eye anatomy for a training program and this was the result:

Eyeball Quiz

And based on which boxes people checked, they could compare their personality traits to eye and cornea anatomy:

Eyeball Quiz 2

2. Find a metaphor to power the learning.

Metaphors can be such a powerful learning tool and can help a wide ranging audience relate to even the most obscure or technical topic.

Some metaphors that are often dismissed as cliche can actually turn into a fun learning experience. How many times have you heard “death by PowerPoint” or “that presenter bored me to death”?

We can breathe new life into these metaphors and really drive home the point to learners if we just play around with these metaphors a little. Here are several screenshots of an elearning module I created as I played with this metaphor.

Death by Boredom Title Page

Death by Boredom - Line Up

3. Play games in training.

Jeopardy is probably one of the most common games played in a training setting (and Kahoot is a great way to easily create Jeopardy-style experiences). Family Feud, Trivial Pursuit and Who Wants to be a Millionaire are some other games I’ve seen pretty often. There are, however, a lot of other games that can offer inspiration for super-creative learning experiences.

Think there’s a way to weave in more strategy by borrowing inspiration from Monopoly or Risk?

Earlier this year a colleague used Settlers of Catan as the inspiration to help overhaul an entire new employee orientation program.


It was a very creative way to weave together a variety of complex concepts during a new employee orientation program. I never would have thought of this approach because I don’t play enough games.

If you’re looking for some inspiration to create new learning games in your next session, you may want to stroll through the board game aisle the next time you’re in Target.

4. Grab some colleagues and watch a movie during work.

I’m serious. Back in December I invited two colleagues to my house to watch Jumanji. Three months later we had overhauled our new employee orientation program based upon the plot of that movie, and we received rave reviews in our evaluation forms (not to mention the fact that this new program reduced the length of the new employee orientation program by 33%).

If you’re going to watch a movie, you may not want to do it in the conference room right next to your CEO’s office – it makes for bad optics – but I can’t stress enough the importance of taking some time during work hours to get away from your desk in order to draw inspiration from other places.

Do you think watching an Indiana Jones or Star Wars or Mission Impossible movie could help offer some ideas for the arc of a training module or presentation?

It’s not just movies. I’ve left the office with colleagues to go to a museum and to Chuck E. Cheese in order to find some transferable inspiration.

The thing about this, though, is that if you’re going to take field trips like this, you really do need to come back with some specific ideas that will influence your work. Otherwise you and your team will develop a very bad reputation.

5. Write it down.

If you’re committed to finding inspiration anywhere, you’ll need to ask yourself this question on a regular basis: how can I possible connect this (whatever you’re doing in the moment – chaperoning your daughter’s field trip, searching for French Fried Onions in the grocery store, watching your toddler blow dandelion seeds onto a neighbor’s lawn, getting stung by a bee during a hike) to a presentation or training program? The truth is, you may not be able to connect something right this very moment, but your gut may tell you that it’ll be useful sometime soon. Write it down. Keep a journal or pull out your phone and jot it down in your notes app or just take a picture.

I’m constantly on the lookout for blog topics and I have a whole file on my iPhone about potential topics inspired by something that I saw or something that happened.

Blog Thoughts

There you have it, five exercises to help get the creativity to flow. Do you have some other ways to draw inspiration from the things around you? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment section.


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