September 25, 2011

Conceiving Ideas

Author: Steven Heller

During the mid-1950s, an era-defining phenomenon overtook the advertising and design fields; it was called the "Big Idea" revolution. Although no shots were fired or governments overthrown—and maybe the word revolution is more hyperbole than truth—nonetheless, the revolutionary spirit was consistent with the innovative philosophy underscoring the Big Idea. It was certainly a coming-of-age period of American consumerism and prosperity, when advertising and design were more than the process of making things look good. The result had to sound, read, and look smart. Indeed, smart ideas were supreme, and everything else was merely fluff.

In advertising, this meant clever copy wed to eye-catching (and mind-stimulating) images; in graphic design, it meant an increase in, among other perceptual stimulants, visual puns (which unlike verbal puns were actually sophisticated, often layered graphic concepts). The "Big Idea" movement built up momentum until sometime in the late 1980s, when it ran out of steam. The consuming public became used to the idea of big ideas, and the ideas themselves were not as big as they once were anyway.

This is when designers instinctively knew that they were ready for an infusion of a new kind of creative energy. It was, therefore, about the time when the new Big Idea of conceiving entrepreneurial ideas started percolating. While only a few intrepid souls initially went out on proverbial limbs to invent, produce, and distribute their own products, the way was paved for others to move forward. Today, the entrepreneurial spirit is the new Big Idea. This book ex-amines how well (and intrepidly) designers have mastered the new creative force and as such is a guide to becoming an expert at conceiving ideas.

Is Everyone An Entrepreneur?

Not everyone has the gift to conceive or detect the Big Idea, but all designers have the potential to develop entrepreneurships simply by virtue of their ability to generate big and small ideas and then—and this is the truly big part—fulfill the promise by making them real. While in the past designers were hired to make other peoples' ideas concrete, in this new entrepreneurial environment, designers (and design students) are thinking, conceiving, and making their own products. Of course, this does not preclude the traditional role of designers as serving clients, but it does suggest that the alternative—once the exception to the rule—is becoming more commonplace. The designer as entrepreneur actually has an advantage over the non-design entrepreneur who must employ others to manufacture, package, brand, and promote. Even if the designer subcontracts these tasks to others, he does so from a position of complete understanding of the media and materials involved.

Yet before even considering the back end, the front end, or the conception of ideas, there is the entry point. And the question most asked of creative people, as well as those who choose to self-generate marketable products, is "where do said ideas come from, and how?" While there is no magic pill—everyone draws upon different stimuli for ideas—there are some useful procedures to follow when starting out as a design entrepreneur.

Clearing the Decks to Make Space in the Mind

The very first thing to do is so simple; it needs no explanation (but then again it can't hurt to say it): Make sure the mind is clear of client-driven problems and solutions so it can be free to create original ideas. If one does not think conventionally, the result may be surprising. While surprise is a double-edged sword (being too far ahead of the curve has its drawbacks), it is also what triggers inspiration both in creator and consumer. In any case, surprising or not, the entrepreneurial idea usually comes, at least at the outset, from a personal (or autobiographical) perspective. For instance, when Deborah Adler was a student in the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts (devoted to training design entrepreneurs), her thesis, to create a safe means of labeling and packaging prescription drugs, came directly from a life-threatening experience that occurred when her grandmother took the wrong medication. Although she had long believed that common drug containers were dangerously ambiguous, personal contact with the problem triggered action. Adler's response is one of many student and professional responses to real-life events resulting in the need to fix things.

There are, of course, other personal reasons to invent or reinvent. The driving urge may stem from something that has been tucked away in the subconscious and may explode in some instant burst of inspiration. Or it may be something that has been gestating for a long time, waiting for the right moment and place to emerge. There are also degrees and levels of big ideas. Some might want to invent the better mousetrap, while others are happy to create something less grandiose but decidedly useful.

Inventors tend to invent because they have the uncontrollable urge to make something that will change life in some way. Whatever the primary reasons, the human mind is always coming up with ideas, and the first important step in entrepreneurial creation is to take some of those ad hoc thoughts to the next level.

So the second step for the design entrepreneur is editing. It is important to determine on which ideas it really is worth investing personal time, and which ideas should be foisted on a world that already has tapped many of its resources to the limit. Not every idea is good, even if it seems to be brilliant at first blush, and it is important to be circumspect. Just because they are self-generated ideas does not mean they are the best solutions for a particular problem. Editing means being wary enough to do what designers do as a matter of course when parsing ideas for a client: selecting two or three ideas and then asking hard questions about viability, feasibility, and acceptability. Can the idea really have legs as an entity? Is the idea something that an audience will want to purchase? Is it possible to efficiently and effectively fabricate and produce the idea for a market? Will the idea add something of value to others? Before wasting time, effort, and materials, the design entrepreneur must make evaluative decisions based on fact and anecdote. If the answers to these fundamental questions are affirmative, it may still be a gamble, but a reasonable one.

The next step then is to test the theory of the idea by making effective indicators—a prototype or some other physical mechanism that allows the creator and the consumer a chance to make more definitive determinations. While this may sound clinically formulaic, the fact is that the big idea is only as good as the product itself. For example, the crazily drawn conceptual machinery seen in the work of Rube Goldberg, the legendary 1930s American cartoonist, was fun to see in drawings but would have been impossible to mass-produce as viable products. His cartoons satirized the stereotype of an eccentric inventor who made otherwise simple ideas into complex mélanges of gears and conveyers, serving as something of a cautionary lesson for those who wantto produce viable products.

While big ideas may certainly be complex, the most effective are those that, in product form, are reduced to comparative simplicity. Conversely, Leonardo da Vinci also drew speculative inventions, like flying machines, that seemed inconceivable at the time, yet history showed they were quite prescient. This, too, is a cautionary lesson—to stick with existing technologies even if the idea is visionary. The trick to being a design entrepreneur is having a keen awareness of what ideas are truly possible to bring to fruition.

Knowing When an Idea is the Best Idea

Sometimes only a best friend (or worst enemy) will provide the most honest evaluation of a big idea. Casual friends (or those who want to curry favor) or family (who are blindly supportive or habitually critical) will rarely say, "That idea stinks," or, "Good thing you kept your day job," or variants thereof. That is why it is important to seek some respected, if not expert, critical reaction to an idea before investing in it any further. Taking into account that objective critics are not always correct (or visionary), the odds are that their responses will have some bearing on the success or failure of a project.

At the School of Visual Arts' MFA Design Program, each thesis must be vetted by committees of faculty and expert advisors prior to their agreeing that an idea should move to the next stage of fabrication. In addition, surveys (see Chapter 2) are required to determine if the average consumer would be at all interested in the idea. Whether one is a graduate student or not, deciding on which idea is the best idea demands some testing. In fact, far from putting the damper on a good idea, tests may help finesse or perfect an idea.

Sometimes a big idea doesn't need to be transformed beyond minor tweaking. Being focused on an outcome may bolster a good idea (and a good idea can fail if that focus does not exist); this cannot be overstated or repeated too often.

Authorship and Collaboration

Defining terms is useful at this juncture: Authorship is the act of "authoring" or conceiving and producing the object, be it a book, film, or fishing pole. Auteur-ship, derived from the "auteur-principle" of French cinema, where one individual writes, directs, and produces the entity (although it still requires a skilled crew to film, edit, cast, and build sets), in design suggests the single creator, which is rare but not unheard of. Collaboration is the act of involving others with the final outcome to engage in the entire process.

Being a design author/entrepreneur does not mean one must be a lone creator toiling away in the proverbial artist's garret. With so many resources and so much media available today, collaboration is not just a luxury but a necessity. Most big ideas demand a concerted involvement of vendors, fabricators, strategists, promoters, and more. The false notion that one can be a super designer/entrepreneur and do it all is fool hardy, if not impossible. While sole ownership of an idea (and of the patent or registration) is possible, embracing the best team is more important than any initial ego gratification. Remember, most design is a collaborative activity. Few designers can develop products on their own. But if all the skills are in place, the majority of the authorship can be attributed to the conceiver.

The rule of thumb for designer en-trepreneurs is this: Rely on those who will make the products into realities. A big idea, as well as a small, good idea, is not very big or very good if it sits lifelessly on paper. Collaboration is not a sin.

Personal Expression

When looking through stores of any kind, one sees a remarkable array of products that appeal to the consumer on various levels of interest and experience. Some clearly fill a practical need, while others trigger emotional, indeed passionate responses. Just as the products touch an expressive chord in the consumer, they emerged from an expressive place in the designer. A design entrepreneur should be cautiously circumspect in determining whether their personal passions are viably marketable products, but neither should one ever discard pure expression as being too self-indulgent. As stated above, many of the best entrepreneurial wares derive from an autobiographical place. Sometimes they seem extremely personal, but other times they can also be universalized.

For some products to succeed, the quirky must somehow be second to functionality, but for others, the individual hand and mind is what creates the appeal. A balance between the two is always necessary. But if one is to be an author/entrepreneur, it is useful to allow that personal expression to come through, at least at the beginning of the process. Then see how the market responds and finesse accordingly.

Source: The Design Entrepeneur