How can I come up with better ideas more often? Other people seem to be really creative and always have good ideas. Is there a way I can jump start my imagination when a blank page is staring me in the face?
At some point in our lives, we’ve all wondered how creative geniuses do so much. They seem to have a never ending stream of good ideas. We’ve all have our shining moments, where we came up with a great joke, strung together the perfect sentence, or even painted something that was greatly admired. Since I work as a designer, there’s often a pull to have great ideas all day everyday. Creativity is the job. Here are some observations that have helped me in the past when I’ve been trying to stumbling:
Step 1: DEFINE Your Goal
Why are you trying to be more creative? What’s your objective? There are a lot of ways to answer this question. If you can ask and answer “why” at every step, the next step often becomes pretty clear. Your goal may just be to have fun or just to wander through your imagination or memories. “It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end,” Ernest Hemingway. Expanding your view of what a goal can be can help you set and keep new goals.
Write out all of your assumptions about your goal. Then question them. Is it true that this can’t be done? Challenge your notions about what the “best” way is, what you “shouldn’t” do to get there, and what you’re willing to do. Assumptions include ideas like “it’s too hard.” Is it really that hard? How do you know? And if anything is really that difficult, what are the steps that you can make it easier?
Another common assumptions are the the thoughts of others. We can’t read minds, can’t assume others think like us, don’t know others interests, future actions, or intentions. When others do share their opinions, handling criticism with a positive attitude is key for growth. Learning to actively seek criticism helps us to be open to new ideas.
“Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in,” Isaac Asimov. These preconceived notions are often the blocks that prevent us from thinking in more directions.
There are a lot of great ideas in stories. “If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten,” Rudyard Kipling. Think about the best stories in your life, the ones that you keep coming back to. What makes it interesting to you? What’s the best part? Is there a visual twist that you can come up with?
If you’re tackling a particular project, explore your memories or even the internet and see what stories there are about the subject. These are the kinds of questions that interject your point of view, your values of importance, and your personality into your work. Tell your story. That’s part of the essence of creativity. The process of thinking doesn’t have to live in your head, of course. Write it down or draw it out. Don’t be afraid of what you’re writing. That brings us to the next step to good ideas: bad ideas.
Part of the key may be that those who are seemingly “genius” just let themselves have a lot of ideas. They create without judging the value of their creations too soon. As the romance novelist Nora Roberts said “You can fix anything but a blank page.” Get something down in some form and then edit it. Quantity can win over quality as part of the process.
If I’m working on a magazine design or a painting, the biggest trick to coming up with something that I like is to just make things. For a magazine, I like to just have a seperate InDesign document called “ideas” so I know it’s not the final draft and just make tons of bad pages that might have one idea that I can use. The point is to do it at a place so rough that it’s fun. Make shapes, place things, play with the composition. While breaks are necessary, waiting for inspiration is not.
Too often, this process is presented as something to add to our never ending to do list. That we “must” create more thumbnails, list all of our thoughts, and keep a sketchbook. What we really need to remember is that scribbling down a sketch and brainstorming is fun! “Life is more fun if you play games,” Roald Dahl. Make a game out of how many ideas you can scribble, even if they are terrible.
Scribbling and making ugly marks until a page is full is a lot of fun and far less pressure. Then take those scribbles into a thumbnail shape to work out the composition. And blow up the thumbnail into a drawing. Translate the drawing into a painting. Each “next step” is less intimidating because the work is done in a safe fun messy no pressure place. If concentrate on just taking just one step further, executing an idea becomes far less intimidating
Each organization is a little different with its own structure and culture. I work with a project manager and editor on most projects. We meet the understand the needs of each client, the audience for the publication, and the specifics. For example, a photographer will be hired to shoot a cover and story.
Every project varies for us too. Different clients have their own levels of involvement. Usually with enough notes, so I’m often left to develop my ideas on my own. I use this information to decide basic ad and editorial placements, the order of the overall book. Ad designers and usually seek advice from our more experienced creative director. The creative director balance all of the projects within our company. If the schedule dictates, I’ll seek assistance from other art directors on our team. I may even be balances several projects at various stages at once.
In contrast to my days as an entry level ad designer, I now get to have a lot more creative control. At this point in my career, I decide what works for me with less oversight. While I’m still provided with a lot of information, as a newer designer the content had more direction on how it had to be presented. Now I makes more of the directions. This means less time actually designing pages, yet when in making mode I am implementing more of own solution and vision.
Commercial design, as creative as the field is at its best, is about business as much as any other job. We have a reputation to uphold with clients, coworkers, and employees. While design itself is often subjective, addressing the most universal business concerns will get more people on board with your visuals. What are some of the most common mistakes made by working graphic designers?
The biggest error we make is to choose style over substance. Yes, we’re artists and ultimately really want to be able to make clean and cool designs. That is at the heart of our goal and we are trusted to make that happen in any circumstance.
When the client doesn’t like our initial idea, we ask respectful questions to understand their point of view and do our best to make it work. We kindly explain some of the basic thought behind our design decisions: white space helped this page look less cramped, the muted colors were chosen as not to distract from the quality photography, etc. Present yourself as a problem solver and at the same time acknowledge that these aren’t the only solutions to these problems. The visual communication tools we rely on may not be the biggest concerns of your client or their audience.
We can take the role to inform others about how design can be a useful tool for their business and bottom line. To be able to do this, we have to listen more than we speak. How can we propose solutions if we don’t listen to the other person’s problems? If we hear that this person is very concerned about their event deadline and respond with color and negative space, how are they going to feel taken care of? In that example, we might mention how discussing the basic design goals is the next step to move forward. Frame your goals in sincere terms of how it helps them.
Other practical mistakes that you can look out for are the basic specs of each job. These are the types of things that can save you and your associates money and build a better reputation. Check for low resolution images, exacting consistency (spacing, type size, typefaces), bleeds. If any of these issues require intervention from the client or colleagues be a neutral messenger explaining why this is an issue, the consequences of not addressing it, and clear next steps for them or you to follow.
Learn when and how to say no when you firmly believe anything doesn’t work and kindly provide a proposed solution. On the other side of the spectrum, practice accepting the word no from others when other solutions than yours are possible even if they are less desirable. If you’re not sure how to handle a situation, seek out advice. Build time in your schedule from the beginning for everyone involved to be able to review and resolve any issues. You don’t know what will go wrong, however something will and you’ll want to create time to fix it from the very beginning.
Any sane professional will want to support a colleague who prizes manners and etiquette. Even the less sane professionals will appreciate being treated as if they are sane.
The very common pros and cons approach reveals our biases as we tend to self-select a limited set of options. Psychologists note that humans tend to look for confirmation for our untested believes. We rely on short-term emotions to make choices. We’re overconfident about our ability to make predictions for the future.
W – Widen your options.
Humans tend to present ourselves with decisions as one option versus another: Do we try to make our current job work or find a new job? The last choice would most likely include parts of both options:
“The universe has no fixed agenda. Once you make any decision, it works around that decision. There is no right or wrong, only a series of possibilities that shift with each thought, feeling, and action that you experience.” Deepak Chopra, The Book of Secrets: Unlocking the Hidden Dimensions of Your Life
For example, if we’re having problems at work, consider fully discussing concerns with managers and coworkers. Continue to test new problem-solving strategies. At the same time, it could still be wise to look into other opportunities. The discussions at your current job both help in your work life and tell the questions and criteria for your search. If a concrete offer for a new job becomes a certain reality, then you’re making decisions with more evidence to know how each role meets your needs.
An experiment published in the Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization found that support for an economic policy was greater when presenting the numbers for the employment rate is emphasized. Giving the related unemployment rates garnered much less support. This is a common tactic used in politics to influence public opinion while not presenting the reality potential outcomes.
How opportunity costs limits our options
To counter the framing effect and force ourselves to consider more options, we can explore the opportunity costs involved. What actions would, in fact, rule out other choices? If you must decide between:
Choice A: A friend’s party
Choice B: A movie on the same night with another friend
What would be the impact of each decision on your mood, friendships, and budget? Have you already accepted one invite, if so what would be the impact of a change of plans?
“In economics, one of the most important concepts is ‘opportunity cost’ – the idea that once you spend your money on something, you can’t spend it again on something else.” Malcolm Turnbull
In the book Decisive, the authors recommend adding the possibility for both actions. Rather than choices “A OR B”, are both “A AND B” possible? Could you bring your movie-loving friend to the party and/or ask to see the movie on a night when you don’t have an accepted invitation?
R – Reality test your assumptions.
Consider the opposite of your ideas and guesses as potentially valid. Is there evidence that contradicts your current thoughts on probable outcomes?
Overcoming confirmation bias
“When we hear news we should always wait for the sacrament of confirmation.” Voltaire
Confirmation bias is a common reasoning error. Experiments have shown that people search for evidence consistent with their current beliefs and predictions. The term “confirmation bias” was coined by English psychologist Peter Wason whose simple experiment in the 1960s showed that people tend to try to confirm their first ideas and not disprove them:
Given the sequence of “2-4-6”, participants would guess that the pattern was even numbers. Then they tried to test this rule by proposing more even numbers such as “4-8-10”, “6-8-12”, “20-22-24”. Researchers would confirm that these all fit the pattern at which point participants would stop their attempts, satisfied that they had found the correct answer.
However the answer was not even numbers, it simply increasing numbers. Participants tended not to try odd numbers to disprove their first guess.
Take action in small steps
With confirmation bias in mind, take small steps giving more evidence toward one outcome or another. If you believe a person you’re dating is not reliable, for example, you might ask to commit to plans. Look for evidence that they are able to be relied on.
The next small step resulting from their response may be further discussion of the pattern of behavior. During this talk, you could look for evidence that they attempt to be more reliable.
“Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together.” Vincent van Gogh
If you contradict your first guess, you may decide this someone you can easily spend time with and continue to date. Or you may find more anecdotes showing unreliability, which helps you decide relationship styles are incompatible. Taking small steps gives you more confidence in your final decision.
“You can’t make decisions based on fear and the possibility of what might happen.” Michelle Obama
Writers Chip and Dan Heath recommend asking “How would you feel about this decision in 10 minutes? 10 days? 10 years?” If you were not involved, what advice would you give? In the short-term, it might feel great to eat a bag of chips or skip that trip to the gym. By attaining distance and thinking about how we might feel in the future, it becomes a lot easier to act.
Identify your priorities
A decision often becomes emotionally difficult as we feel the conflict between various priorities. By identifying your distinct preferences, you’ll often be able to more clearly see. You’ll have a more clear idea of your best answer for your situation.
Is your long-term priority better health? Compared this to your short-term priority of instant gratification. You might decide to eat a balanced meal skipping the fast food ultimately feels more satisfying.
P – Prepare to be wrong.
In preparing to be wrong, we acknowledge and take steps toward various likely outcomes. The overconfidence effect is a natural human bias. We tend to view our own actions as more certain to guarantee outcomes. More so than is likely or possible. We believe that we are more certain to know the truth than we really do.
In fact, the results of our decisions likely fall within a wide range. Some factors and events could not be predicted. Other possible outcomes that we could have predicted, we did not. Perfect decisions that give us perfect control are the least likely possibility.
Set a wide target
An example of overconfidence is demonstrated in the planning fallacy, first proposed by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. The planning fallacy is the tendency to guess a task takes less time than it likely will.
A wide target is easier to predict. If these taxpayers guess that they’d mail their taxes sometime within the next year, they’d be more likely to be correct. Compared to if they guess that within the next week they’d complete the task.
Set a tripwire
Prepare to revisit your decision by setting triggers. If X happens, at that point revisit your decisions. If you were investing or gambling, you might be comfortable with losing 10% of your money. Once you’ve lost 11%, it’s time to decide if this it’s wise to continue with your current strategy or test something new.
Be ready for positive outcomes too. If the person we were dating in the earlier example on reality testing does become a reliable planner, what does this mean for the relationship?
Build a safety net
Since things happen that are hard to predict, it’s smart to prepare for the unexpected. For example, financial experts recommend emergency funds even as they discuss tracking spending and creating plans for how to pay your bills.
No plan is perfect. We often can’t predict what we’d need to use our savings for. We can guess that an unexpected event will happen. Many situations would be easier and less stressful if we have extra money available for it.
Next time you’re deciding to take that expensive vacation or buy a fancy dinner, consider a 2012 study cited by Vanguard that found that those surveyed had: unpaid medical bills (26%), overdrew their checking account (22%), took a loan from their retirement account (14%), took a hardship withdrawal from their retirement account (10%), had more than one late mortgage payment (13%), and filed for bankruptcy (3.5%). If you think this can’t happen to you, re-read the section on overconfidence. Then start to act and start your safety net.
Readers, what strategies have helped you make better decisions? Share below in the comments!
Brian E. Young is a graphic designer and artist in Baltimore, MD.
We asked in our recent survey, how can you fill the gap between creativity and business? When I try and come up with my own answer to this question, I look at my work as an editorial designer. I’m the kind of person who tries to push boundaries and try to make something as close to art as I can get in a commercial environment. The business side takes over when it comes to selling my concepts and convincing others that people will “get it”. That’s the thing a lot of people don’t get about design. Not only does it take technical skill (knowing how to use programs and understanding design and color theory), but there’s a huge sales aspect to the most successful designers. It doesn’t matter how artistically successful your work is if no one will buy into it. You have to convince people to be on your side and practically get them out there, selling for you.
Take a look at the responses from our panel and chime in with your own advice and experiences. If you’d like to be featured in a future blog post and share your advice, take our latest questionnaire.
“You bridge the gap by learning about and doing as much as possible in both aspects.”
“You have to be serious about the business side first. Otherwise, there will be no creative opportunities. Running your own business, you will realize you are more of a business owner than a designer, as you will begin to have more in common with business owners than with designers. This is good, since having your clients as colleagues is very beneficial.”
Lisa C. Jackson (lisajackson.biz) is owner of a Company Identity Solopreneurship, Lisa Jackson Design, and helps small local businesses to succeed.