For many, the creative process feels mystical and unpredictable. It’s harnessed by those with an innate talent and a creative personality. This is, however, utter bull. A creative mind is the right of every person. It just requires a few key skills and a clear approach.
1. The Quota Approach
The creative process follows a clear path from quantity to quality. Rarely are we struck with such a brilliant idea that it requires no evolution or alteration to be realized. More often a successful solution comes from exploring many options, distilling them down, and refining only one. Quantity to quality.
Designers often forget this. Our greatest failure is assuming our first good idea is the best one we will have. It’s understandable. Design is an arduous process. We can go hours, even days, focused on a problem without a solution in sight. Then suddenly the idea strikes. It’s precious. It’s gold. It’s utter relief. So I beg you to shove it aside and go back to the misery of the design process. We are not yet ready for quality.
Here is the value of the Quota. A good idea is comfortable. We can rest rather than go off searching for a better one. The Quota gets us out of this mindset. Give yourself a number and force yourself to produce. Can you think of 15 ways to design a bathroom? 20 ways to finish a wall? 10 ways to lay out an office? Quality is not the goal, but it is certainly a result. I guarantee that within those innumerable options, one will be better than what you started with.
The Quota approach is a gift from Twyla Tharp, legendary choreographer and author of The Creative Habit.
“A lot of things happen with you set an aggressive quota…[People] focus, and with that comes an increased fluency and agility of mind. People are forced to suspend critical thinking…they put their internal critic on hold and let everything out.”
When you force yourself to devise an unreasonable number of solutions, you start to get creative.
2. Mashing Ideas
A while back I came across an adorable book called Dancing about Architecture: A Little Book of Creativity by Phil Beadle. The premise is simple: Creative solutions cannot be arrived at through normal means, otherwise everyone would arrive at them. The way you approach a problem through unusual means is to mash it up with something totally dissimilar. What can be learned about architecture through the lens of dance (or vice-versa)?
"…a person with a propensity to produce ideas will be someone who sees the relationship between things; relationships that are not necessarily obvious on first sight."
– Phil Beadle | Dancing about Architecture
Architecture has a very real example of this creative mash-up in the world of biomimicry. We have begun researching plants and animals through the lens of architecture. Can the way trees soak up water be applied to plumbing? Can the way leaves soak up sunlight be used for solar energy in buildings?
Or perhaps you take a more comical approach. How can fishing be applied to bowling? I won’t try to answer that one, but you get the point.
3. Feeding the Mind
Most artists (and designers) have a certain arrogance about them. There is pride in the creative act, and it’s easy to believe our “genius idea” came only from our brilliance. It does not. For the mind to work, it must be fed. Output first requires input.
Young designers (myself included) are always making this mistake. We see the ease with which our seniors design. We then sit at our desks, eyes on a piece of blank paper, wondering in vain why we cannot produce a single idea. The reality is that our seniors have had years of “input”, inspiration, and precedent. Their mental repertoire of ideas has been filled. Ours is empty.
The solution is simple: Feed your mind. Let it soak in. Let it simmer. Let it stew.
Renowned advertising executing, James Webb Young, distills the creative process into 5 “Techniques for Producing Ideas”.
Gather materials. Find inspiration. Find precedent. Research.
Digest materials. Consider what you learned.
Unconsciously internalize materials. Sleep! The best ideas come when you allow your subconscious to take over. It is far better at synthesizing information than your conscious mind.
Sudden Eureka moment. An idea will appear as if from thin air.
Bring ideas to life. Act upon the idea. Refine it. Make it work.
In essence, the more you put in, the more you can take out.