As a designer, you're asked to come up with original and exciting ideas on a daily basis. But what if your winning ideas have run dry? Paul Birch and Craig Grannell reveal the real-world techniques that can really help you unlock your creativity.
You are creative. Only creative people are allowed to read this magazine. But there will always be times when you feel that you could do better, or have a better understanding of how creativity works. Trying hard to be creative can become quite pressuring, and clearing your mind is often easier said than done.
Clients expect designers to be creative on demand, but you already know that things don't work like that. "If I try too long and hard to come up with an idea, I invariably get nowhere," admits designer and "International Ambassador of Crayola", The Boy Fitz Hammond. "Often, the more I try to push an idea out, the less chance there is of one appearing." If any of these scenarios sound familiar, what you need is something that will give you some facts, ideas and tips to help you when you hit that creative wall and nothing else seems to work. Read on, this advice might be just what you've been looking for.
Understanding the creative mind
The creative mind is surprisingly like any other mind - a mess of blood vessels, neurons and other bits and pieces that fills the inside of our skulls. There must be some differences, though, because we are continually making distinctions between creatives and non-creatives.
Most definitive statements you hear about the mind and the brain are wrong. This is partly because the brain's functions are not very well understood and partly because the brain is a hugely adaptive parallel processing system that restructures itself whenever the need arises. It is the heaviest organ in your body and uses energy faster than any other.
There are about 100 billion cells in the brain, ten per cent of which are neurons, many of which have thousands of synapses (connections). These connections make thinking possible. It has been estimated that there are about 1,000,000,000,000,000 connections in the brain. Even the glial cells (the goo between the neurons) are now thought to have a role in thinking. But the understanding of the brain is restricted, and very few people are able to give an exact overview of its complexity.
What is known is that the brain is actually two brains. The neocortex is two halves connected only by a bundle of nerves called the corpus callosum. You might have heard that the left side of the brain handles logical, sequential, verbal and numerical thinking while the right side handles spatial, artistic, holistic thinking. It is true that in the vast majority of people the speech centres reside in the left hemisphere, but the rest of this model is way too simplistic. It does, however, seem as if the area of your head that handles art, imagery and design sits somewhere different to the area that handles logic and words. It is certainly the case that the most effective idea sessions are those that separate the creative area from the logical, evaluative area.
Some designers believe that collaborative brainstorming can help. "I need people for my ideas to work. Ideas that work don't happen in isolation," claims Designation director Arthur op den Brouw. Others aren't so sure. Mindflood's creative director Chris Lund hates brainstorming sessions: "There's too much pressure; everyone sits around bored and awkward. It's best to come to the table with conversation-starters - either the beginnings of ideas or random and creative thoughts."
One of the problems with the way we use our minds is that many of us have been to school, which is both a great thing and an awful thing for our creativity. Any form of thinking acts as exercise for the brain and makes subsequent thinking easier. But we are taught things that inhibit our creativity. At school we learn that there is a right answer to every problem and that the person at the front of the room has it in their head. Your job is to guess what they have in there. The creative mind knows that there are an infinite number of right answers and that once we've found one we might look to find another and another.
At school the rules are there to be followed and we are encouraged to colour between the lines. The creative mind knows that, as World War II veteran and test pilot, Chuck Yeager said, "Rules are for people who aren't willing to invent their own". The creative solution always sits outside the rules pretty much by definition. If it didn't the answer would be obvious, ordinary and you wouldn't need a creative mind to find it.
During education we learn that we must avoid mistakes. The creative mind knows that if you don't make mistakes you don't make anything. But what serious attempt at experimentation could guarantee success? Stretching the boundaries has to involve mistakes. The trick is spotting which ones to stick with.
At school we learn to deconstruct, to analyse and to apply logic. The creative mind is illogical - at least while it is being creative. Interestingly, the truly creative mind is the one that can then come back later with a healthy dose of analysis, logic and practicality in order to further develop an idea into something useable.
There must be something in the creative mind that resists or rebels against this side of school education - something that manages to retain the ability to continue the search for right answers, to break the rules, to make mistakes and to be illogical.
The creative mind is also able to apply focus in a selective way. When we focus it is tough to generate ideas. This is because focused thought uses the well-worn pathways in the brain and takes us to all of the places we already know. Unfocused thinking is what delivers the creative breakthroughs.
This is why so many great ideas come to us when we stop worrying and let go. They come when we're in the shower, walking, driving, daydreaming or doing pretty much anything other than trying to get a creative breakthrough. Having nailed the great ideas, the focus then needs to be applied to their development.
VooDooDog's creative director Paul Donnellon agrees: "Computers hypnotise me," he says. "I don't lock into good ideas in front of a computer screen." Similarly, Belgian graphic designer Tom Muller says his ideas come when he least expects them. "They come when I'm not consciously looking for one, but when my mind is wandering off to la-la land," he says. "That's why I watch bad television - when I'm looking at something that doesn't require much concentration, I can 'zone out' and that's when my thoughts start to wander."
Release the pressure
One of the key characteristics of a creative mind is the way that it handles pressure and stress. Under stress our body releases adrenaline and endorphins into the blood stream. This is an evolutionary hangover from the times when stress meant we were about to attack or be attacked. The adrenalin pools blood in the middle of the body to reduce bleeding when we're injured. This takes blood away from all non-essential organs.
Endorphins are powerful, opiate-like drugs that deaden pain, and can also deaden our thinking capacity. It follows, then, that the creative mind must be one that responds to stress in a way that somehow maintains the ability to think clearly.
Escaping the stresses of the office, therefore, often leads to great ideas. "Becoming overly familiar with your environment has a negative effect on creativity - you become much less observant, less curious," reveals Designation developer, Stephen Qualtrough. Studio Output's creative director Rob Coke agrees, and although he considers 'the pub session' a clichÃ©, his team has arrived at great ideas there: "When trying to come up with something original, you're putting yourself up for ridicule, and nothing lowers inhibitions like a couple of pints," he says. "You can always fashion a decent idea into something workable, and if a hastily scribbled-on beer-mat or napkin helps you to remember it, why not?"
The caveat, as Framfab's group art director Will Bloor reminds us, is that "such sessions shouldn't be confused with an unproductive pub session, where time is flitted away with no clear agenda, culminating in a last-minute, ill-conceived idea."
Remember, the creative mind expects to be creative. It expects to be able to generate ideas, and this should not be underestimated. If everyone expected to be able to be creative on demand then they wouldn't need you because they would be generating the ideas they need for themselves. Belief in your creativity is a very powerful step towards actually being creative.
Let the ideas flow
Anything that stops you thinking as you always think is a good technique for generating ideas. The Boy Fitz Hammond suggests keeping sketchbooks with doodles of ideas. "If I feel myself getting frustrated and hung-up on one thing in particular, I try to leave it and get on with something else instead. Once I'm distracted, ideas invariably come."
But what else can you do to start a flow of ideas? First, ask the right question. You would be amazed how many problems have been solved and how many ideas generated just by rephrasing the question. If you have a brief that you are working to break down, cut it into sub-elements and then re-phrase them in as many ways as you can to see what different perspectives that gives you. Similarly, try taking those sub-elements and asking "why?" repeatedly.
For each answer to the "why?" question, probe that with a "why?". Keep on going until you start getting answers that are banal enough or broad enough to be useless. You will find that in some of the answers you have given there are alternative perspectives that will give a totally different approach to the task.
"Do as much research as possible," says Studio Ouput's Lydia Lapinski. "Pick out key words from the brief, draw spider diagrams with more words, look at them in a dictionary, type them into Wikipedia, and get as much knowledge on the subject as you can." Her colleague Steve Payne agrees: "You shouldn't ever sit staring at a blank page. Instead try throwing some shapes or something on to it to make it less intimidating!"
If your need for ideas allows you the luxury of time, take it. Often better ideas come from spending longer working on something. You're sure to have experience of situations where you've had that unbelievable, killer idea fully formed seconds after you've started on something, but unfortunately those situations are rare; memorable, certainly, but rare nonetheless.
"Everyone needs room to breathe, a space to think, and a forum to share," says Bloor. "Designers must be given space to experiment and make mistakes; therefore allowing them thinking space and headspace is vital." As a rule of thumb, he suggests turning a third of studio areas into non-work-related 'break-out' spaces.
Getting it down
Once you have fully immersed yourself in the task at hand, make the opportunity to let go of it and play. You may find that an idea comes to you as soon as you have let go. Carry a notebook with you if you use this approach, because some brilliant ideas will slide from your memory if you don't write them down straight away.
You could try moving away from the problem by using a creativity technique. Many of these work by shifting thinking away from the problem into another area and then moving that thinking back to the problem. For instance, a random stimulus, such as a picture, could be used to generate a whole series of words. These words could be used to create nonsense solution sentences (sentences that sound like solutions to the problem but are actually nonsense) and then those sentences can be used to move thinking away from the traditional areas it would follow.
"I'm a great believer of chance in the creative process," says Lateral's Simon Crab. "Brainstorming is a process of fitting random ideas together to generate 'big ideas'. The more 'good ideas' people there are, the better for generating randomness."
Expectation is probably the most useful creativity technique. If you expect to find a creative solution you will. As an example, the man who invented the hydrogen balloon thought that he was copying what the Montgolfier brothers had already done. He had heard that they'd flown in a basket suspended below a balloon and had reasoned that they must have had a balloon filled with something lighter than air. He knew how to produce hydrogen, so used that. The Montgolfier brothers had used heated air, which gets lighter the warmer it becomes. Within days of the first flight in a hot air balloon a new form of balloon was invented by someone who didn't even know he was doing something original. The theory here is clear; if you don't know it's difficult, it won't be.
Mind, body and soul
Your creative mind only works because of the support you give it. Learning to relax through meditation, or just regular relaxation practice, is the best way of combating stress. If you do find yourself getting stressed then you might also find regular exercise a useful way of clearing your system of the adrenalin and endorphins that will collect within it. "You need a life outside of work - indulge in a hobby that's not related to the creative industry," says UK web-designer Nathan Pitman. "You'll be surprised how often you'll stumble upon an idea, a concept or a solution while far away from the studio."
Why is what you do important to you? Why is the creative element of that necessary? For many of us our creative side nurtures and even defines who we are. If this is true for you then understanding that and building it into your work and your life is a key part of you delivering on your creativity, and your creativity delivering for your life. If you expect to continue to produce creative output then an essential part of that is creative input. What you read, what you see, the stimuli that come into your life will all help to shape and build your future creative output. So, think consciously about how to build more stimulation into your life as creative input.
Paul Donnellon believes in experiencing things outside of your own discipline. "See what's out there in art, literature and theatre," he says. "It's too easy to draw on your own reserves and, in the business of life, forget to feed the creative brain."
The creative process needs you to feel okay with being unsure. It needs to be okay to not know where you are going. You need to be lost in your head for a while. So, next time you're feeling anxious about not knowing where you are going, hold onto the thought that this is really good practice for your creativity.
Keep it real
Reading everything that's been written here, you might go away with the notion that generating ideas is a good and wonderful thing. But ideas by themselves are useless. It is doing something in the world that matters. It is not enough to just have the idea, you have to go beyond that idea to succeed, to make that creativity reality. The brilliant novel that sits in your head is not a brilliant novel. The masterpiece of sculpture that never gets made is not a masterpiece. The ultimate piece of computer art that exists as an idea and nothing more is nothing. It is the implementation of your ideas that gives them life.
Developing ideas, making them real in the world and then selling them (in a real or a metaphorical sense) is what makes creativity happen. So have your great ideas, but ultimately you need to get real and do something!
MAXIMISE YOUR CREATIVITY
Six radical ways to generate ideas
GO TO THE PUB
Most of the best ideas you will ever have are generated down at the pub. Or at least that's how it seems when you're drunk. So get some friends together and treat them to a drink in return for some killer ideas.
CRAM, FORGET, DELIVER
Incubation time is important. Learn everything you can about the ideas that you need and then walk away for a while. If you are up against a deadline this can be a high-risk strategy, because it does assume that your subconscious is busy working and will be ready to deliver when you return to the issue.
ASK A CHILD
A young child can be a great source of really daft ideas. Try explaining your problem and get them to suggest an approach. But take our advice, it really isn't a good idea to walk up to the children of strangers in the park.
Do at least one thing every day that scares you. When it comes to idea generation, make sure that a proportion of the possible solutions sit outside of your comfort zone. If they don't, then you're being too tame.
BREAK THE RULES
Finding ways to break the rules that exist in your head is fundamental to being creative. Write down all of the rules that exist around your need for ideas and then find different ways of breaking them.
WEAR TIGHT BRIEFS
When you have to work to a brief it is customary to moan about how restrictive it is. How about making it even more restrictive and applying arbitrary additional limits. For instance, make it steely, pink and liquid. Even if this feels completely nonsensical and seemingly useless, give it a try.