May 22, 2012

So-Called Techniques


Authors: Ana Labudovic, Nenad Vukusic

There are days when inspiration runs dry and you stare at a blank page of something that was supposed to be your masterpiece. How did this happen? Can I cure it and be whole again?

Some people say you may. Let us start with supposedly the first person ever to systematize the creative process, James Webb Young, whose book Technique for Producing Ideas is a step-by-step guide to producing ideas on demand.

According to Young, it all happens in five stages. The first stage is preparation, where you dive into your challenge and saturate your brain with interesting source material, consciously or otherwise.

Once you have filled your head (and you do that all the time, exploring the new and curious world around you), you move to the second phase, the incubation. At this point, you let all this stuff in your head simmer for a good while. Supposedly your brain, otherwise strained to generate logical solutions to problems, when left on its own, makes unexpected combinations. The third phase, officially called insight, and usually called "Eureka!" or "Aha," sometimes even "I got it!" is when all this starts to make sense, because you have made an unexpected combination, found a different approach, or a solution to the matter at hand. The fourth phase is evaluation. That is when you have to be strong and decide, under the cold light of reality, if your insight was any good in the first place. Go back to your research, test it against your audience, and check if the message is clear and if the chosen medium is efficient. In real life, you sometimes have to go back to the drawing board and start from step one again until you get it right. The final stage is elaboration. That is when you actually produce the idea. You have found your one true idea and you are sticking to it, because you know this is the one.

Brainstorming and Such

If you plan to work on a team, or to start working in an agency, you will soon come across the term "brainstorming." It was first developed in 1939 by A. F. Osborn, an advertising executive in BBDO. We define it as a group focused on the production of a large number of ideas, disregarding how much sense they make. No idea is turned down or deemed ridiculous; they are all recorded and built on, awaiting further critical evaluation in later stages of development.

There are three critical factors in this process. The group must strive to produce as many different ideas as possible. All members must withhold judgment, as this could discourage other members from participating. Finally, the group leader must create a positive environment and channel all the members of the group in the same direction. If the participants are still feeling too uncomfortable to share their ideas without fear of censoring, you can try silent brainstorming. Instead of shouting out your ideas, you would set a time limit for writing each down on a separate sticky note. When the time runs out, you mix notes from everyone process. The group must strive to produce as many different ideas as possible. All members must withhold judgment, as this could discourage other members from participating. Finally, the group leader must create a positive environment and channel all the members of the group in the same direction.

There is an individual brainstorming process that works the same way, with several simple techniques to get the creative juices flowing.

Free writing is a free flow of creative thought within a given period of time. To accomplish this, you need to set an alarm, sit down, and just write as many ideas as possible, in a continuous stream. Ignore grammar and all other rules; instead, generate as many ideas as you can. When the time is up, evaluate and decide. Rinse and repeat as necessary.

Free speaking is the same thing, but you record your own voice. If you are lazy, have bad handwriting, or want to move quicker, this is the technique for you.

Mind mapping is a technique where you draw a diagram of your associations, hoping to get more stimulating ideas from one. It is like drawing a map of your association process. Every idea is in direct graphic connection to the previous, so once you backtrack you can elaborate on the connection or even make new ones.

Word association is one of the techniques described by Edward Bono in his book Lateral Thinking. It is a way of creating far-fetched relations between random words and your topic or problem, in the hopes of arriving at original solutions or new points of view. Think of a random word (or just open a dictionary to a random page) and try to connect it to your problem. By diverting your mind from the actual problem, you will ostensibly make the "click" in your head happen sideways.

This and other creative exercises for lateral thinking are used in circumstances when our normal automatic perceptions and pattern matching keep us trapped "within the box." Shifting your thinking patterns is not always helpful, but when a good idea is discovered, it is usually obvious in hindsight. That is why you have to be able to scrutinize your work in an objective way.

These techniques are intended to spur your "design thinking," which is a problem-solving approach whereby you transform existing conditions into preferred ones, as defined by Herbert Simon in his book Sciences of the Artificial. Design thinking is therefore a creative process of building up ideas, especially wild ones, as these lead to the most creative solutions.

Many companies are turning to design thinking for help when they hit the creative wall. GE, Procter & Gamble, and Maytag have made significant investments and organizational changes to take advantage of design processes and methodologies. Design as an innovative problem-solving methodology is fast becoming an imperative business strategy.

Don't forget that the flashbulbing bit is just a tiny part of your job. You can be prolific in your generation of random ideas, but you need to know how to focus and sculpt your results.

Mark Ury agrees with the phrase "1 percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration."

"Ideas are easy. It's selling, producing, and implementing them that takes time and effort."

Overall, though, he doesn't believe in "generating" ideas.

"For the most part, the core idea reveals itself to you early in the process. You probably have to validate it, but if you've done your research and listened to the rhythm of the problem, it's 'there' to be seen. That 'moment' may have taken you ten years to get to—understanding that particular industry, psychology, pathology, etc.—but the actual idea arrives in a flash."


We always tell you to put yourself in the shoes of the end-user, and role-playing is a "game" that does exactly that. You adopt a certain role with all its traits, personalities, motivations, and backgrounds different from your own, and think about how that person would act or what he would like.

One of Andreas Grönqvist's projects involves helping a betting company think like sports fans:

"I try to get them to know what happens when you go to watch a soccer match, why do they support this team, how did they think before and why do they drink beer before the match. If you are not a sports fan it's a really strange thing to do, but when you do it you start thinking in a different way. I find the term role-playing extreme so I'd call it more putting yourself in someone else's position, although I'm familiar with some people using methods that involve getting dressed up in costumes. A creative director friend of mine had the entire management team of her company dress up as women so all the men could get into the state of mind of how a woman thinks."

Perhaps in some cases this helps you get more insight, but in others it might just get in the way since you'll be too busy laughing at your colleague's wig.


Another way of spicing up your routine is attending a creative workshop, or even trying to run one yourself.

Hort is a multidisciplinary studio that organizes workshops that give people the opportunity to break out of their daily routine and think beyond the confinements of their office desk. According to Eike Koeing:

"Originally, we held student workshops at universities. As we love bringing the idea of Hort to people, sharing our experience and helping them learn and grow, we also began holding workshops for creatives at advertising and design agencies. The participants include art directors and designers as well as copywriters and even planners or accounts people. These people range from junior to senior creative directors to CCOs. We discovered that people really enjoyed working with Hort and the way in which we conducted the workshops was a real enrichment for their daily business lives. I [Eike] usually conduct the workshops, sometimes with help from other designers at Hort. Once, we also had our interns hold a workshop for younger students who had just started university. That was very interesting for both sides."

She also explained the pure Hort methodology:

"What we do in our workshops is somehow very simple: we work with the participants the way we work at Hort. It is the same process, the same way of exploring, creating concepts, designing, solving problems, thinking about clients' briefs and tasks, developing ideas, etc. The workshop, as well as our way of working, has a lot to do with exchanging ideas, giving feedback, and helping to bring ideas or designs to the next level."

In their workshops, they create an open space, free of computers and tight deadlines, acknowledging the importance of changing the way people think sometimes by being exposed to different environments, developing new creative techniques, and alternative ways of thinking and approaching projects. By making sure their groups remain small in size they create an environment where people are able to think creatively in an emotional way, rather than in an efficient or client-driven way.

The use of computers is strictly forbidden and, according to Eike, the people love it:

"At the beginning of the workshops they are sometimes confused. Too much freedom. But then they really enjoy it. They love going back to their roots, to everything they always wanted to do in graphic design. And the good thing is that they then try to integrate all this into their daily work at their agency."

Source: Field Guide: How to be a Graphic Designer