I often use this little thought exercise when developing concepts for logo or branding projects.
Our brains seem to have the tendency to notice differences in things.
We look for how things deviate from the norm to help us to differentiate them and even categorise (or sub-categorise) them.
When trying to come up with logo concepts, I often use a technique that Eminem uses for writing rhymes.
What he does is to split a piece of paper into columns, and list words with a similar verb sound in each column.
He can then use the columns to link words together and start to form sentences.
I do something similar with logos, but I split the page into 2 or 3 columns, each with a visual concept or idea at the top.
For example, a project I am working on at the moment blends health with data... So I have those two ideas as the headers of my columns.
Then beneath each title I list any visuals that I feel represent the concept well.
Under the 'Health' column I have things like: heart, fruit, bright, plus symbol, leaf, nature, smile, jump, hands... etc.
Under the 'Data' heading I've got: chart, graph, heart beat, health bar, power bar, numbers, computers, games... etc.
Now what I do is to take one word from each list and ask the question 'how are they similar?'
I am trying to visualise each in my mind and think how they can be similar... Looking at the lists the first thing that came to mind was to visualise a heart icon in the style of a computer game health bar... So this is 'gamifying' the process of getting healthy.
That's only the first thing that came to mind, and over the course of brainstorming I'll add extra columns and come up with 10-20 pairs that I'll draw similarities between.
This always gives plenty of directions to explore.
The difficult part is often choosing which ones to actually develop further.
A good strategy is to push yourself to come up with 20 or more written ideas before starting any visuals.
This stops you becoming overly attached to the first thing you come up with, and also pushes you to see the problem from multiple angles.
The early (research) stages of a project are make or break time.
Don't cheap out on investing time here... It always shows in the end product.