Where do ideas come from?

Ben Garfinkel – No Comments

The following article by Mark Busse was published on October 7, 2013 in Design Edge Canada Magazine.

Boom. I hit the wall. I couldn’t think of a single idea for this month’s post. I was blocked. I had nothing.

I hate feeling stuck or uninspired. But it’s in those times that years as a designer comes in handy as I muster the strength and focus to keep moving. To crack on.

It’s an interesting thought really, to consider that although the craft of graphic design and the skills in using the ever-more-complicated tools of this trade are crucial, what we really get paid for is creativity.

We are uniquely able to endure the anxiety that comes along with not knowing and not merely jumping to the easy conclusion or assumption.

In fact, this special “mojo” we possess is that which our clients most envy and pay us handsomely for. But what is creativity?

How does one go about ideation—especially when your mind has gone blank (God, that’s a horrible feeling).

I don’t remember being taught creativity or ideation when I was in university—mind you that was 25 years ago, long before “design thinking” was even a thing, but I do remember a particularly wise professor once telling us that if a task, problem or opportunity seemed scary, it was likely a sign that there was potential for learning, growth and gain, and I should accept the challenge. He also said that all challenges required creativity and hard work—two concepts that he said were interchangeable. I’ve been accepting scary challenges ever since—and working hard to be creative.Defining creativity is a very personal and nearly impossible thing, yet people long to understand it. I know that for me creativity is often about pattern recognition, where an idea from one area—often completely unrelated—can be repurposed or inspire ideas relating to the challenge at hand.

When working with my clients I often find it’s easier to establish what they are NOT as a way of defining what they ARE. Sort of a negative approach I guess.I do know that creativity is NOT a talent. For communication designers, creativity is NOT the process we were taught.

Creativity is NOT the tools we use. It’s a frame of mind. It’s a philosophy. It is a way of operating.

Experts have been studying creativity for years and the consensus is that highly creative people are those who’ve mastered the ability to put themselves in a particular mood or circumstance and tolerate the anxiety of struggling to find a way forward. These are people who are willing to put themselves out there, to engage in play, to be unafraid of the judgement of others, and just get on with it.

Creative people posses the ability to play with divergent ideas and allow them to converge, and lead us to better ideas and solutions. I am a big Monty Python fan, and I love the commencement speech John Cleese gave years ago about his secrets for a creative life. In his talk he discussed how there really are only two modes of thinking: closed and open.

Most people are closed when at work—even highly productive creatives—relying on being structured, motivated by stress, and reactive. Harder to master is an open mindset, which is relaxed, expansive, curious, interactive, and more playful. Both modes are required, but we often get stuck in the closed mode—which is best suited for execution. As designers, we MUST learn to be in the open mode.The main thrust of Cleese’s argument was that creativity thrives when one engages in a sort of “play” but with purpose and structure, and then by mastering this open mindset and applying it to problem solving. In his speech he presented five components to creativity, and next month I’m going to share those with you in Part Deux of this article.

Ultimately, for this month’s blog post I faced up to my writer’s block and started by writing down all the ideas I knew I didn’t want to talk about.I went to one of my favourite hiding spots and set aside the time to focus and think. Because I was already so fuzzy-brained, I had to give myself ample time for my subconscious to percolate the challenge, and then I just tucked in and started writing.

At first I wrote a bunch of gibberish and had a laugh at myself, but eventually I realized the solution was right in front me: the very struggle I was having and the way I was approaching it was precisely what I should share with you this month.

After that the words poured out in a continuous flow. I completed two month’s worth of work in 20 minutes.

How do you tackle creative problem solving when you’re drawing a blank? Add your tips and suggestions in the comments below.