Iconstorming for creatives: Draw new ideas and stretch your creativity

Justin Cheong
Oct 25, 2018 · 6 min read

As illustrator for Thinking Design by Adobe and the Adobe Design Blog, I face the daily challenge of needing to create engaging visuals that complement various content. To keep my creative juices flowing, I have been using a sketching exercise in my practice to generate new imagery and stretch my creative thinking.

I dubbed this exercise “Iconstorming”, inspired by the cleverly titled Gamestorming, one of my favourite visual thinking books (written by two of my favourite authors). The exercise itself was inspired by Edward De Bono’s creative thinking exercises.

I first shared this exercise in 2018 at VizConf, an Australian conference for visual practitioners. In this article, I describe the set of exercises in full so that you can experiment with it too.

Iconstorming challenges you to draw pictures that combine unrelated concepts

Iconstorming is part of a set of exercises that come in four “levels”, as I describe below.

If you wish to direct these exercises at solving a problem, simply replace the random words with words relevant to your problem and see what comes out. However, I suggest always using at least one random word to introduce variation into the process.

Otherwise, these exercises are also a fun way to inject some creative thinking into your next design workshop. Consider the purpose of your workshop and which level exercise would best fit.

Have fun with these, and let me know what you find!


Level 1 – Simple icon sketching

One random word

This exercise is no different to Pictionary. Firstly, generate a random word. You then have 20–30 seconds to sketch the word. Anything you draw will either be from your memory, or require you to think on the spot about how to visually convey it.

Repeat this as many times as you like in one session (same for Levels 2–4).

Examples of Level 1 – Simple Icon Sketching (thanks Sally, Kate)

There is something magical about hearing a word, and seeing a picture in your mind’s eye. The drawing part turns it into reality, and the whole process is like sorcery.

I like to use creativitygames.net for random word generation.

While Level 1 is the simplest of these exercises, it is also the most essential to master for visual practitioners, particularly those who do live sketching (e.g. graphic recording). Once you feel comfortable with Level 1, move onto Levels 2–4 to really stretch your thinking.

Level 2 – Iconstorming

Two random words

This is the iconic (ha!) exercise for generating new icons. Firstly, generate two random words. You then have 40–60 seconds to sketch an icon that combines the two words. Note you cannot simply draw two separate icons. You must think of a way that the two concepts visually combine.

For example, if your words are “corn” and “café”, you could draw a café made from a giant corn. Or you could draw corn being served inside a café. Note the order of the words don’t matter; you can draw “corn café” or “café corn”.

Examples of Level 2 – Iconstorming (thanks Tali)

You will be forced to invent almost every time, because most concepts have no direct connection to one another. It will feel uncomfortable, but in that moment of discomfort you are creating something new. For some this exercise will not only fun, but addictive.

Thanks to the vastness of the English language, there are 14.7 billion* possible combinations you can get from generating two random words. That’s almost 15 billion icons waiting to be drawn, and that’s just from English alone!

*Quick maths at the bottom of this article, if you’d like to geek out.

Level 3 – Scenestorming

Three random words

This exercise will improve your ability to create images that tie together multiple themes.

Firstly, generate three random words. You then have 3–5 minutes to sketch a scene that contains all three of the words as images. You don’t have to combine the words into one icon, but you must think about why the three things belong in the same scene.

Examples of Level 3 – Scenestorming (thanks Kate)

Scenestorming may require you to spend more time thinking than drawing. For example, do all three words have something in common? Perhaps two of the words are literal, and the third is a concept that ties the other two together?

While you will rarely be sketching at this level for live work, I have found this exercise to help me with creating more interesting visuals for posters, documentation and editorial illustrations.

Level 4 – Storystorming

Four random words

Storystorming will help you practice your creative writing in a visual way.

Firstly, generate four random words. You then have 5–10 minutes to sketch a four-panel comic. The comic must contain a caption for each panel, and each caption must contain one of the randomly generated words.

For this exercise, order of words matters. You start by dividing the page into four panels. Then, using the four words, in order, you construct four sentences that each contain one of the words and string together a story. Only after writing the sentences do you begin to draw the story.

Steps for Level 4 – Storystorming

You want to spend at least half your time creating the story, as that will set the direction for your images. Writing the story will require synthesis, and some understanding of how stories work (whether intuitive or learned). This exercise can help you practice your storytelling skills.

Examples of Level 4 – Storystorming (thanks Rob, Sally)

Using four words for this exercise is no accident — much of music, poetry and comic strips occur in four beats. It’s a rhythm we’re well familiar with.

Levels 5+ are works in progress. If you think of any ideas, I’d love to discuss!


A Daily Practice

The aim of these exercises is not necessarily to produce anything interesting — although that will often happen, as you will get happy accidents from the collision of previously unrelated ideas.

The goal is to help you practice your creative thinking skill — yes, it requires practice! — so that when you are working on a project, sketching on stage or just thinking about a problem, you are ready and confident to deploy your creativity.

If you are thinking of running these exercises in a workshop, know they might be just what you need to get participants to think differently.

To see daily posts of Iconstorming experiments, simply follow @Iconstorming on Twitter or @iconstorming on Instagram.

Give it a try, and enjoy sketching!

Visual practitioners sketching new concepts with Iconstorming at VizConf 2018

Thanks to Matt Magain and Marcel Van Hove for organising VizConf 2018. It was an awesome event and a very welcome moment for our visualisation community.

For more on creativity, the Freakonomics podcast has just kicked off a series of episodes on the topic of creativity. I’m a big fan of the way they deep dive into topics, and I recommend the listen.

I realise some of the above exercises will have been previously thought of and documented elsewhere. If you know about them, please point them out!

You can follow my personal work on Twitter at @jcfiction

*Quick maths for Iconstorming: Assume 171,476 unique words in the English language. Simple combination formula yields 171,476! / [2!*(171,476–2)] = 14,701,923,550 unique combinations.

Justin Cheong

Written by

Sketch to think. Paper and ink. justincheong.com

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