“…I am just a copier, an imposter. I wait, I read magazines. After a while my brain sends me a product.” Phillippe Starck
I was 16 years old when I participated in a group art show. It was my first time painting on canvas, and my first time being any kind of artist at all (and not a very good one at that). I had no idea what to paint. At all. A fast approaching deadline didn’t make it any easier to be creative. Looking back, I realise that I wasn’t even trying to come up with a concept - I was just looking for a finished image to paint.
I struggled with this until one day, an image flashed in my mind - probably from a brain overstimulated by Pinterest - and I seized it. “Isn’t this convenient” I thought to myself, as I reproduced that exact image on the canvas, put it up at the show, and even managed to sell it. It was so fascinating to me that ideas just pop into your head completely ready and for the picking.
Deep down, I had a nagging feeling that I was a fraud. My painting, though aesthetically passable, was about nothing.
This practice continued into my first year of design school. Since it was the only way I knew how, I genuinely believed that using the images that popped into my head when I shut my eyes were the way my brain came up with ideas. I realise now that what I was doing was dressing notions up as concepts. “Semantics, in design means to design something that has meaning, a reason for being, something in which every detail has a precise purpose aimed at a precise target.” wrote Massimo Vignelli in Vignelli Canon. My work was not semantically correct, the jury panels saw through me, and I began to see through myself.
“The great and fatal pitfall in the art field and in life is dependence on the intellect rather than inspiration.” Agnes Martin
We began learning the design process, in it I saw my salvation. If none of my work had any sound backing until now, all forthcoming work had as much research and logic and ‘concept’ crammed into it as possible. The process gave me control over my work, and I followed it to the T. I didn’t want to present an idea with flimsy reasoning ever again.
So I studied and studied, filled pages with notes and made diagrams. I did a project about the rise in popularity of cheap processed food and unhealthy eating habits in young children, and I think I could’ve gone on to be a nutritionist with the amount I read about the subject.
All of this study, and still I wasn’t doing well. The pools of data I was collecting led to limp ideas. I had projects that solved the problem in theory, but whose visual outcomes were safe, uninspiring and unremarkable. What good is a piece of design if its all talk and no show?
“Problem + fresh perspective x intuition = concept” Marty Neumeier
I attended a design workshop recently, and one of its goals was to help students explore their inner creative process through collaboration. The first thing we did on day one was to pair up and speak for two minutes on how you come up with ideas while your partner took notes. My partner, a painter, talked about how she came up with ideas by reading lots of books on the subject she wanted to paint on, examining different materials and listening to one particular band just as she felt there were stirrings of an idea in her brain. The next two minutes were for me to read my notes back to her with my interpretation. While I was analysing her process and giving it a structure, I began to realise how subconsciously, through trial and error, we all arrive at a system that works best for us, but most young designers can’t really articulate what it is. An exercise as simple as this one can help you see the little things you do to induce an idea!
We still don’t know where ideas come from, and to most they do seem like magic, a gift exclusive to geniuses and ‘creative’ people. Its impossible to really define this shadowy process. As Alan Fletcher wrote, “…The only thing for certain is, like cats, ideas don’t come when called.” But I think you can trick them into coming. You can lay the groundwork for an idea perfectly, and ready your mind to be struck by inspiration (like taking a shower or going for a walk). It is important to understand and perfect your design process, not just the design process.
It took some time to find a system that worked for me. When I did, it was like a fog clearing up that you had been squinting into. Understanding your own process is empowering. Knowing how to use it, and ‘hack’ it can really help speed up your ideation time. More importantly, it allows you to troubleshoot your way out of creative blocks and shallow ideas.
There is a Zen maxim that goes “Develop an infallible technique and then place yourself at the mercy of inspiration”. Happy developing!