How to Legally Steal Great Ideas


Crackers (Photo credit: elhombredenegro)

Even creative people get stumped occasionally.  Somehow, your brain just runs dry.  There are days when you think you may never have another great idea again.

It happens.  However, if you’re prepared, you’ll never run out of ideas again.

In fact, there are great ideas lying all around you. Other people’s ideas.  Even your  own ideas that you’ve completely forgotten about.

All you have to do is look around for them, and then steal them.  Here are six of my favorite completely legal ways to do that.

Keep a swipe file

A swipe file is an old copywriter’s trick.  When an article, a blog post, a an email promotion, an ad, or a headline catches your eye, put in in its own folder (virtual or real).  When you’re stuck, pull the folder out and look through it.

Steal from yourself

When you produce something yourself, keep a copy of it in its own folder, binder, or box (I have stacks of these).  When you need inspiration, pull them off the shelf and sort through them.  With some tweaking, that promotion you used for client A might just work for client B too.

Rearrange existing ideas

If you can’t get a headline or a tagline to work, write each word down on separate slips of paper.  Then move them around on your desk. That’s how GE came up with “we bring good things to life.”  Take the ideas, words, or concepts you already have (that don’t work on their own) and mix them up.  Move the pieces around.  The red bar at the top might look better on the bottom.  I find this works best with actual paper (physically holding it my hands, rather than moving it around digitally.

This works with both design and words, even longer pieces of copy.  Sometimes the best idea in your sales letter or your blog post is buried in the second paragraph.


Scratching is what Twyla Tharp calls germs of ideas.  A few moves or steps that she files away for future use.  Since it’s hard to write down dance moves, she records herself on video.  When she needs an idea, she pulls out the file, runs through her ideas, and builds on them.

If you have a thought, an inspiration, or something catches  your eye, write it down, record it, send yourself a voice mail, or type it into a note file (I use Evernote for this).  When you need an idea, pull one out.


Take two seemingly unrelated ideas and put them together.  People ate meat and baked bread for years, but it wasn’t until 1762 that someone thought to put them together and create the sandwich. Write down a random bunch of words or concepts, don’t think, just write. Then move them around and put them together (cats and space, aliens and cheeseburgers, movies and the internet).

Institutional memory

Your long-term staff is full of ideas; they’ve been around long enough to see the good, the bad, and the really hard.  Go ask them for their input, rather than trying to figure out everything yourself.

Try these out.  You may never feel stuck again.

2 thoughts on “How to Legally Steal Great Ideas

  1. Good stuff Jodi. I am combining ideas and I now have a hamster lecturing to an audience of kite-builders. Still working on how to incorporate this into my marketing…

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