Where do great ideas come from?

A few personal thoughts on the design and creative process.

The bath? Famously, Mr Archimedes, had his Eureka moment in the bath. Which may give us a good starting point to answer this question.
It certainly seems to be true that the more relaxed you are, the more day to day fun you are having in a job you enjoy, the more likely you are to find lots of interesting ideas.

That said, this is an open piece of writing intended for discussion.

What do we really mean by a great idea? I would for the purposes of this article define a great idea as an ‘idea with a successful outcome’ and which will probably be successful in the arena of creating work, graphic design or marketing as this is the area we are working in. It may of course just be a personal success as in an idea that works for you as a piece of art.

The success could be measured by a long winded quantitive market research evaluation or it could just be an emotional response like ‘oooh’ or ‘aaarh’, but probably not a ‘mmm’. Use of the work ‘like’ is best avoided and ignored in most third party responses.

For a more literal answer… Since I am not a neuro-scientist, the mechanics and mysteries of the mind and any serious explanation of a literal answer to the headline question is unlikely to be forthcoming.

It is however, definitely worth pointing out the importance of the vast unexplored capacity of the unconscious mind. A huge resource of previous sensory experience, some of which, it turns out, is inherited. This information store can, with a combination of technique and a whole lot of luck, be tapped into for the occasional surprising great idea. More of this later.

One final important point of note worth mentioning would be that many great ideas are usually a recombination of a few assorted older ideas. A process known as ideation.

A big wheel

We are all different and work differently, of course, so this is just my personal take on how great ideas are borne. I see the whole process as a revolving wheel starting with a brief fed into the funnel at the top. Followed by a series of process steps and an evaluation all of which can be supported, sped up or focussed upon by any number of personal techniques as the wheel revolves in your frenzied imagination.

1. The brief.

Probably the most important aspect of the whole process is to take the time to produce a strong, clear and hopefully succinct clear definition of what the idea is you are hoping to find answers for.

I call it a brief, but it could be a question that needs answering, a need to find more ideas or a pitch to produce visual work for a new client. Whatever the project is that needs ideas, it needs to be defined, as clearly as possible so that you can keep coming back to it and checking whether the uncontrollable flow of idea craziness is actually relevant or useful for the work.

2. The preparation, inspiration and the curious open mind.

At this point, it is worth mentioning, what the psychologists call ‘the open mindest’.
A great treasure which is important as it is the necessary mechanism that keeps our mind open for questioning and reimagining just about everything that goes through it. It is a very valuable asset indeed, and it can be learnt. Marvellously it has a whole lifetime of positive side effects not least of which is that it means you need never be bored as you can always have great conversations and arguments with yourself. A process which, I believe, is called ‘internal dialogue’.

Be curious, explore and record.
Feed your mind, fill your head all with the necessary background information you can. Never stop observing and asking questions. Spend as much time as you can looking more closely at the detail of eye catching work and make notes. Screen grabbing, diarising and general scrapbooking are all part of the building process, the foundations of a personal history of work that can be built on and referred to when necessary. Find stuff, store stuff and magpie everything that is relevant and interesting to you and your chosen disciplines, the action of recording will make it easier to recall later.

Most of the best ideas come from people who have trained and prepared themselves to create a receptive mental space for acquiring, processing and generating ideas.

Random ideas
Great ideas come from the most obscure and unlikely places. If you are lucky, but it is usually practice, they pop up as if from nowhere when you are thinking of something else. Such is the power of the unconscious processing, we are not in control of, going on in the background of our minds.

Very few of us are fortunate enough to randomly chance upon great ideas. It is much more likely you will have to do the legwork, the preparation, the questioning, the relentless sketches, notes and planning before settling down to a deliberated session producing the initial thoughts and sketches you need to start to answer the original question.

One interesting observation from the world of advertising is that many, if not most, of the great and timeless headlines and campaigns have been inspired by material the creative director passed on the way to work. A competitors’ advertising hoarding, a tune, an overheard conversation or a random piece of graffiti have all, it has been written, contributed to mini epiphanies and timeless work such as ‘Probably the greatest…’, ‘a mars a day’ and ‘for mash get smash’!

3. Create a setting or an environment that works for you

Private studio space, A man cave, a quiet armchair, a garden shed, the local library are all creative spaces. Local galleries might provide inspiration, but so can a walk down the high street. My point is anywhere can be creative space or a place where ideas might strike once you have laid the foundations of being receptive, but eventually, and especially if you are being paid for them, you will need to create your own Dylan Thomas shed by the sea, your Roald Dahl room for writing and production of the day to day work that works for you. It doesn’t need to be much, I have always loved camping, but it could be the spare room, a corner of any room, it doesn’t matter as long as it means something to you and allows you to get into your zone. Toilets and the shower, as with Archimedes’ bath can work, but probably not reliably enough for the day job.

4. The start – The blank sheet of paper – a terrifying prospect or the best thing evs?

I would suggest that if you have read this far, the prospect of a blank sheet of paper probably excites you. In fact I would go so far as to say that as a creative professional or somebody who values creativity, it is highly likely that the concept of being able to take your mind, written and visual skills anywhere you want, putting together anything you can dream up and the whole overwhelming joy of these thoughts alone are the absolute best feelings. It is the stuff you live for.

All that said, even the most productive professionals, have problems and most of those seem to be at the start.

Ideas count for nothing until they become a reality. In some form.

Ideas can be started with a sheet of paper, a wipe board or a calm and restful mind set, but as with everything else, you must start, consciously asking the initial questions and either thinking or writing a number of initial thoughts. Once you achieve some kind of flow, concentration usually follows.

You will need your own personal ‘start’ technique. One fellow professional once told me, ‘super glue your bum to the seat’. Nowadays I look at the clock, after the liberal application of the previously mentioned wonder adhesive, and say right I’ll give it an hour and see how it goes. Distractions, telephones and visitors excluding… it usually works for me. But you will need to design your own technique here. Usually two to three hours later I look at the clock again and am thankful that it still works.

5. Getting on with the process of creating ideas

So you’ve started, you’re generating the first ideas and getting something down on screen or on paper now it’s all about keeping it on the road… it’s all question, question and question again until you have honed your interrogation down to the real heart of the problem and the road is the right road.

Keep refining your ask and constantly simplifying it until it can’t be made any simpler.

The less you have to remember consciously (like stored in RAM on a computer) the easier it is to concentrate and focus on the branches of reasoning. Check your answers and their paths against the original brief, always being careful to not get lost in the unrestrained flow of ideas.

Useful personal tips, tools and techniques

for keeping the creative process flowing and in check

For the start – The single sheet of paper technique.
Present all the factors on one side of a piece of paper and look at them collectively to look for patterns, commonality and connections.
This can be, literally, a single sheet of paper or a single on screen summation of all the elements that are necessary, highlighted, prioritised and where they might be needed, presented as an overview.

For ongoing – The big sheet of everything
‘Post-It’s on a board, a giant cork pin board, mood boards, overviews of ingredients and wipe boards with magnets are all really useful techniques for looking at everything in ‘overview mode’. Be wary of competitors prying eyes and inadvertent social media posts with these more open techniques. It can be emotionally and financially expensive if they are given away. I would be wary of drawing and spray painting ideas in public spaces, although the technique has worked admirably for the likes of Keith Haring and more latterly Banksy.

For ongoing – Mind mapping, Branched trees, Flow charts
There are several established consciousness flow and free flow documentation techniques from the likes of Tony Buzan and colleagues where you write ideas down in new arrays to find new connections and new patterns. These techniques are useful and are all well documented elsewhere, so I’ll leave you to Google them. My contribution would be to say that with using them, you quickly adopt your own pattern of recording notes and create interesting new techniques yourself with your own visual short hand, doodles and annotation to keep it personal and fresh.

For the process – The ‘Go away and come back’ approach
The sideways approach. It’s always worth walking away from sticking problems and challenging asks. Physically get up, walk away do something else and return to the problem a few minutes later. It’s amazing how different things look, and how many times simple requestioning gets you back on track. ‘Never look a challenging problem straight in the eyes’.

Attitude and approach
At the risk of sounding like a parent or a soap box enthusiast I would like to note that I believe establishing a good attitude or, even better, a great attitude is an essential personal skill in any project and by that I mean a committed and passionate approach. An energetic and enthusiastic determination to create the best work you have ever produced this time above all else and treat every project every time with the same discipline. Half hearted approaches yield half hearted results.

The overnight sleep on it approach.
It is always worth stopping a project, if you can, at a suitable point, knowing you can revisit it the next day, the age old ‘sleep on it’ approach that throws out all the niggling questions and confirms doubts.

The exercise approaches
Finally there are a few longer walk away helpful assists. It always helps, if you have time, to go for a run, a long walk, a swim or a cycle ride. Whatever you do, some exercise will help clear your head and when you sit down again you will almost certainly feel the benefits of the mental clarity that comes with it.

6. So how do you know you have had a great idea?

You will probably know if you have a great idea as instinctively you will feel its strength. You will probably have a little lift, a gut instinct, an intuitive hunch that this is great. but above all it will just feel good.

If you don’t instinctively ‘feel it’ how do you know to stop?

The process of creating great ideas, as with any other creative process to create great work, will necessarily involve going around your big wheel many times. There is a clear correlate between patience and quality and it is worth repeating this mantra as you start to produce ideas and work that you may still be able to do better.

Knowing when your revolutions of process are no longer truly productive is a harder skill to acquire. This is made considerably harder with a personality type that is mildly obsessive but personally I rely on small cues such as hunger and exhaustion as well as more often simply setting time limits to retain sanity and bouncy enthusiasm levels for the next phases of the project.

In summary.

Golden moments worth working for

Great ideas are hard to come by. But I believe they are an achievable goal with persistence, a few insights and techniques and above all a clear focus on their purpose.

Once you have passed the phase of beginners luck, you will need to master the disciplines and skills that accompany the process and that’s hard work.

I believe, all this effort is rewarded, and in the fullness of time, great ideas reveal themselves, shining bright and adding a special zing to your life.

You don’t need to be a great person like Archimedes. An Olympian attitude, will definitely help, but good process and hard work will drive you most of the way there and with some extra motivation you may be in the business of producing golden moments in your life if not gold itself.

Si Homfray. 2017.

If you can’t be bothered to spend any number of years disciplining your mind, training it to a finely tuned machine and all the associated sacrifices that will have to be made to hone these skills, you can of course use a creative agency and telephone si homfray at Hammer Design on 07515 903173.
This has been a shameless self promotion :  )


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *