Story: Creative Icebreakers

Draw Your Neighbor

The first day of class can often be a little on the dry side. There are some basics I always have to get through: an overview of the syllabus, doing student introductions to learn more about what they hope to get out of the class, etc. I always want to have something fun on the first day, so now I also include a great icebreaker activity that makes an important point about creativity.

Step 1: I ask each student to take out a blank sheet of paper and a pen or pencil.

Step 2: I tell them that they are going to have one minute to draw a portrait of the person next to them. Everyone looks a bit nervous.

Step 3: GO!

Step 4: For a minute there is a lot of furious drawing, nervous laughter, and (generally) a few muttered curses.

Step 5: When I call time and ask the students to show their neighbor the portrait, the room tends to explode in a combination of laughter and apologies.

Step 6: I make the point that if I asked a 4-year old to do the same thing, they would work very hard for a minute and then be very proud of their work. No apologies. The lesson is that we shouldn’t apologize for doing the best we can, or throwing out a rough idea, or trying something crazy. Experimentation and creativity is crucial, and we must be unapologetic when pursuing new ideas.

It works wonderfully every time, and it always sets a great tone for the semester.

30 Circles

I hand out to each student a sheet of paper with 30 blank circles. They’re asked to pull out a pencil or pen, and I tell them that they’re going to have one minute to “turn each circle into something.” I offer the examples of a smiley face, a frowny face, a sun, or a baseball. They start their minute, furiously turning circles into things. At the end of a minute I call time, and they all sigh exasperatedly, since they didn’t get through as many as they wanted to.

I prompt them to hold up their hands if they finished five circles (everyone always manages that), then ten, fifteen, etc. Almost no one gets the full 30. Then I ask them to raise their hand if they use a smiley face (almost everyone), a "frowny" face (almost everyone), a sun (usually a few people), or a baseball (almost no one).

The first lesson of this exercise is that someone gave them correct answers which they chose not to use. In advertising, there are a lot of good ideas out there that can be repurposed and adapted to meet a client’s needs. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel every single time.

The second is that to be creative, we have to be willing to create things that aren’t perfect. (I’d guess this applies to research and idea generation in areas across campus.) You can refine the best ideas with time, but if you don’t just get the ideas out there you can’t even start that process.

Students love it, and I find that it really does encourage students to start sharing “rougher” ideas and concepts than before I was using this as an icebreaker early in classes.