Over all my years in this business, I’ve had the good fortune to work with some stellar groups of designers, whose spirit seemed to flow directly into the work they produced. Teams like these are fun to be a part of and to watch.
To observe them, though, you’ll need to find them, and their habitats are diverse and strange. At times, you’ll see them huddled around a single monitor, at other times sprawled all over the floor. They co-opt ping-pong tables, coffee bars and hotel lobbies. A city street becomes a war room, an airplane becomes a studio.
What emerge are ideas – tons of them, free-flowing, thick and fast. But, this being a creative process, sometimes you’ll sense a struggle. Sometimes, even the greatest teams just run out of gas. And, through working in these teams, I’ve seen how they deal with inertia and what they use to fill up the tank.
There are no secrets here, just the adopted practices of many worthy teams. But they are the things I always go back to on those days when the muse won’t pick up the phone.
Start with the brief. There are people I know who are big believers that creativity should be unfettered, like a design version of Thing One and Thing Two from “The Cat in the Hat.” Let out of their box, they run amok, free at last (and, need I remind everyone, smashing everything they come into contact with).
I don’t believe creativity should be unfettered. I believe it needs purpose. For me, that purpose is the brief. It’s the first step on the long and winding path to a great solution. It’s the beginning of the inspiration. When we’re stuck, we need to re-read the brief, remembering what the mission is, and then we need to read it again.
Become the end user. The process should always lead right to this: trying to think how the consumers think, to shop how they shop, to desire what they desire. It’s trying to get to the bottom of what inspires them to pick something off the shelf. As an old boss of mine used to say, it’s “uncovering their buy-ological urge.”
Stop thinking like a designer. It’s important to remember that simplicity lies at the essence of the best concepts. Ideas need to be explained to people outside of this business, people who don’t speak this speak, people who don’t necessarily care about the detailing on their laptop bag – people like my mum. A litmus test I apply to my ideas is: Can I explain it to Mum? Without fear of contradiction, the ideas that have made the register ring the most over the years are the ones she understood in a heartbeat.
Don’t overwork things. Once we have that simple idea, we owe it to ourselves to have the confidence to let it be. So many good ideas get choked in the knot of over-intellectualizing or get distorted with pretty visuals or big words (like “intellectualizing”). To keep ideas lean and fresh, we rotate out of them quickly, putting just enough meat on the bones to capture the essence and then move on. In the concept phase of our work, more pain is not necessarily more gain. There’s always time to flesh things out later on.
Constantly question. While you shouldn’t over-think an idea, you can’t question it enough. I like to ask myself, “so what?” I ask it of every facet of an idea, of every angle, for each and every thing we come up with.
“So what?” yields more ideas than it quashes. It strengthens and validates our thinking and fuels the debate around our work. The fine art of questioning drills down to the truth behind the meaning of research findings, target consumers and mission statements. It forces everything out into the open.
Open your eyes. I like to be open to inspiration and to recognize that it comes from everywhere. That means getting out of our comfort zone. Take the team off-site, go to the mall, go get a beer, change your surroundings and just observe. And when you travel, get out of the hotel. Eat the food. Meet the locals. Learn the language. Get off the beaten path. Above all, walk around.
And leave the BlackBerry at home. People have no idea how many moments of inspiration have passed them by while they’ve been hunched over, tapping away.
Sleep on it. You can grind out a presentation at three in the morning or pull an all-nighter to render some sketches. But in my experience, the big idea is not going to come when the brain cells are weary. Go home, go to sleep. The big idea will be waiting for you in the morning.
Christian Davies is vp and managing creative director of FRCH Design Worldwide in Cincinnati.