As a consequence of writing a lot of proposals I've been thinking about my design process. I was specifically trying to explain to a client why a job that contains thirty hours of design time has to take place over a couple of weeks. And something tickled in the back of my memory and reminded me of a thin orange book about ideas that I read in college. I knew I had seen it when I repainted the bookshelves last winter… I searched it out and reread it for the first time in decades.
The book is called A Technique for Producing Ideas by James Webb Young. Originally published in 1940, it features an introduction by ad man William Bernbach of Doyle Dane Bernbach. What I read both surprised me and didn't surprise me. The process Young describes closely mimics what I find myself doing project after project in my studio. After some Googling around this week I find that there are lots of people out there thinking, writing and lecturing about creativity and idea generation and the basic steps he outlines seem to hold true.
Young's thesis is that the mind can be trained to come up with ideas. All of our brains are full of rapidly aging facts. But it takes creativity and the ability see the unexpected relationships among these facts—to create new ideas.
Here is his process in a nutshell:
1. Gather raw material.
We need to gather general knowledge about the problem and specific information about your product. Learn everything you can about your customer in general and a very specific customer and their relationship to your product. He likens this to the bits of colored glass in a kaleidoscope. You have to store away as much info as you can to create the beautiful shifting combinations.
Young suggests gathering data on 3 x 5 index cards—one fact per card. Then gathering these cards together. (This feels like how I use Pinterest—creating boards of inspirational material and web links.)
2. Mental digestion.
Using singular focus, review the raw material and look for relationships. In my mind's eye I see Young with a table full of cards moving them around over and over again to see connections and relationships. This is where the "pre-occupation" or flakiness that creative people are known for happens. It is like working out a puzzle, shifting, shuffling, listening for the pieces to lock into place and make sense.
This phase is exhausting and messy. But it is worth pushing past the point of frustration. (I know that when I'm in this phase my office and home are trashed. Piles of books, computer print outs, tracing paper and sketches litter my desk with no apparent order or logic. I may not sleep well and I definitely ignore the phone and email.)
3. Make no direct effort.
Step away. Watch a show. Listen to music. Paint or draw. Let your creative mind be recharged. You want to leave the project alone and let your subconscious work on it. (I clear my desk and office and put everything into file folders—both online and offline. This is also probably where I pick up my camera and head outside.)
4. The idea appears.
We've all experienced ideas appearing out of nowhere--the Eureka! moment. Perhaps in the shower, our out on a run. Constantly thinking about a problem gives you the knowledge to make the discovery possible but making space in your conscious thought allows you to be receptive.
5. The cold, gray dawn of the morning after.
This is where you take your idea out into the world and make it work. The final shaping and development of the idea to create something that is practical and useful. Share it. (Austin Kleon would love this concept of sharing the idea!) Allow others to modify it and build on it. Let it be expansive. A lot of the hard work happens at this point.
(I'm constantly amazed at how much work has to happen at this point. Don't abandon the idea and go back to step 3! If you've really created something new, or some new combination of ideas, it will need development. People can be rattled by something unexpected and it is our job to explain how we arrived at this solution.)
I've worked with some awesome designers that worked completely differently. Then again I've read about scientists, musicians, politicians and business people that use a very similar process.
How about you? How do you come up with new ideas? Is your process different? The same? I would love to hear.
A Technique for Producing Ideas by James Webb Young
Available on Amazon for under $6