On Having Ideas: Start With Your Brand

This week, I’m taking a detour from the stationery show talk to address a question I get a lot, which is “How do you come up with your ideas?”

OK. The answer to this question has a lot of different pieces, but I want to start with something that might not sound obvious at first, but is super duper important:

A simple way to begin is by coming up with three adjectives that define your brand. Elegant. Cozy. Whimsical. Classic. Funny. Inspirational. Uplifting. Modern. The descriptors can be anything– but choose them carefully, because the key moving forward is that everything you create will be all of those three things.

My three adjectives are: Insightful, Relatable, Colorful. (See — I do this too!)

You have to be willing to kill even your favorite ideas if they don’t fit the adjectives, because if an idea doesn’t fit, it’s not right for your brand. I’m not gonna lie, this hurts, like finding a pair of pants that make your butt look awesome and leaving them behind in the dressing room. But ultimately, “because I like it” is not a good enough reason to add something to your line. If you’re going to build a cohesive, successful brand, you’ll need to consider your product ideas more strategically.


For example: Above is a great card by Rifle Paper Co. It’s beautiful, right? But if I had this idea, I’d kill it — because it doesn’t fit my brand. It’s colorful, but there’s nothing especially insightful or relatable about it. And if I painted a card like this and added it to my line, it wouldn’t sell as well as the other things that DO fit my brand. (I’m sure it does really well for Rifle, though;  it fits seamlessly within their brand look and feel!)

But! The good news is that it’s actually EASIER to come up with ideas when you have strong brand guard rails to measure them against, because it will help you narrow and focus your thoughts. This streamlines the process and makes it less likely that you’ll be overwhelmed by possibility. It also gives you a easy first step in evaluating your ideas, since being on-brand is part of what makes an idea worth keeping.

What else makes an idea good? Here’s how I evaluate mine. Any idea I come up with has to meet all the following criteria in order to be considered for production:

1. Is it consistent with my brand? Does it match the brand description I’ve written for myself? If it’s off-brand, even if it’s clever or funny or pretty or I love it, it’s dead.

2. Has it been done before? Are there products with the same message or look out there? If so, it’s dead – unless there’s a very good reason to keep it.

3. Is its message universal and relatable to a majority of people? If it’s too specific, it’s dead.

4. Do I like it, and can I articulate why I like it? If I can’t say exactly what resonates with me about an idea, it’s dead.

If I’m an expert on anything, it’s coming up with ideas. Are they all good? F, no. 90% them are terrible. But the most valuable skill I took away from my career in advertising was the ability to generate a ton of ideas in a really short amount of time and be able to quickly and objectively decide if they work. At this point, after ten years of practice, my brain can evaluate an idea based on the above criteria almost instantly, like when you start to be able to dream in a second language. But this does take practice. And the process works just as well if you do it slowly and deliberately.

In future posts, I’ll go into the whole coming-up-with-ideas thing in more detail. Let me know if this was helpful!

28 thoughts on “On Having Ideas: Start With Your Brand

  1. You know, it’s really helpful to see a great idea that wouldn’t work for your company in particular. It’s true: that beautiful Rifle card would dilute your brand. My until-now unconscious conception of your work as insightful (and lettering focused) would be somewhat undermined if I saw you were offering some perfectly wonderful products that nevertheless didn’t fit that image in my mind’s eye. Thanks for sharing a bit of your process!

  2. So helpful! This makes so much sense. I have lots of ideas and actually put a lot of pressure on myself to try to pursue them all…which is kinda crazy. Very insightful post, thanks for sharing!

  3. Thank you Casey! (And you’re welcome!) I totally get the desire to pursue EVERYTHING – I have it too. :) I find that starting with a solid brand foundation really helps me figure out where to focus, and why — which is also important.

  4. Wow, this is really insightful! Thanks, Emily :) I guess I’ve always known you should follow your brand guide, but I’ve never been that strict with it, or really taken it into account when creating work, if I’m truly honest with myself.

  5. Thanks for sharing… I’m definitely learning that liking it is not enough! One can like so many things, but it doesn’t mean it makes sense to add to our line of creations…. great point!

  6. Hi Emily, i just watched your interview on Smart Creative Women and loved your story! Congratulations on your success! and thanks so much for this informative blog post….i really like how you have broken down this topic into very concrete and understandable terms.

    • Thank you so much, Diane — I’m glad you liked the interview and this post! So weird to watch yourself on tape — I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to it. Haha.

  7. Pingback: Five Nifty Things #7 - 100 Baby Sweater Patterns | 100 Baby Sweater Patterns

  8. Pingback: On Having Ideas: Make It Relevant - Emily McDowell Inc.

  9. THANK YOU for this post! It’s especially helpful as I am in process of evaluating this coming year of my business. I think this is going to transform my brand! I’m so excited!

  10. I’m starting my first freelance business and it’s so wonderful to see the branding process broken down into digestible, easy-to-understand steps. Thank you for sharing! I can’t wait to explore your other posts and uncover more valuable tips!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *