I've often approached world building from a relatively minimalist position. While I enjoy fantasy worlds with richly developed worlds, sometimes such things can get in the way and what should be a riveting novel can turn into a foray into the author's world building practices. Nobody wants that. Tolkien, for all his brilliance in creating the most fully-realized fantasy world in the history of the genre, was occupied by unfortunate flaws in style and character development, some of which were a product of the times. I prefer to keep things localized. Whether it is the most efficient method, I don't know, but it seems to work well enough for me. I don't occupy myself with excessive amounts of ancient history, because, as much as that might be interesting, it is not relevant to whatever story I am writing at that moment.
When I build worlds, I start with names and general ideas, work my way to a map, and then go wild until I feel that I know enough about the world to be able to write in it. Sometimes it works well, depending on how interested I am in a particular world, and sometimes it doesn't. But when it works, it really works. I have three fantasy worlds that I developed this way (Traea, the world in which The World in the Satin Bag is set, a world where I've set many of my "quirky" fantasy stories, and the Mundoscurad, the most recent, in which The Watchtower is set.
There are an absurd amount of different methods for world building, from genre specific to author specific. Writers of all genres, particularly newer writers, are always looking for the "best way," not realizing that the "best way" is really non-existent. Reality dictates that what might work for some, may not work for you, and vice versa. Ken McConnell, for example, said via his Twitter that, "sometimes it's the little things, like word choice that can set the tone and enrich your world building."
So what do you do when it comes to world building? How do you find the right method for you?
Trial and error. Not the answer you were looking for, were you? Tough. So much of writing involves trying something to see if it works for you. If it doesn't, you drop it and try something else. Trial and error is a writer's third or fourth, or maybe tenth, best friend (no doubt writers have a lot of best friends).
But that's neither here nor there. I want to hear about your world building methods. How do you approach creating new worlds? What works for you?