Everything begins with an idea, even this blog post. They are the starting point for some of the most amazing things in the world, and also the most terrifying. But finding a good idea is hard. They don’t turn up at your front door and you won’t see them stuck down the back of the couch. The elusive good idea is a thing of beauty and nowhere does it shine brighter that in the creative industries. Here’s some of my thoughts on the matter.
The word ‘idea’ comes from the Greek word… ’idea’ – not the most startling snippets of information I know. The meaning of the word however, is both ‘form’ and ‘pattern’ – something far more revealing. Having an idea gives you something to go off. It substantiates, justifies and qualifies. It gives you a reason to progress, an origin for all that follows and a pathway to a destination.
Brains – Explained (kind of)
The average human has between 50,000 and 70,000 thoughts per day. Not all of these thoughts are ideas and not all of these ideas are useful when it comes to creativity.
Here’s a totally inaccurate and wildly fanciful cerebral theory on where good ideas come from. I strongly encourage all neurologists to skip this part, and all creatives to pay close attention.
Our brain has different levels of ideas. On the outermost level are the simple ideas – a single, reactive generation of an idea based on what is occurring around you. Below that are ideas that are more considered – ones that factor the influences and implications of more complex connections between cause and effect. Finally, in the centre of the brain, lie the good ideas. To access them, you must burrow through the two outer levels. Only by purging your brain of simple or common ideas can you hope to expose the good ideas that lie beneath.
Working in a creative agency like Yoke, a good idea can achieve many things. It can spawn the concept behind a visual identity for a new brand. It can be the irresistible hook in an advertising campaign. It can shine a light to reveal the right user journey through a website. However, before we even think about trying to come up with ideas, we need something else – we need a brief.
The Basic need for a Brilliant Brief
A well thought out brief is absolutely essential to the success of any creative project. It will inform you on crucial pieces of information including target audiences, objectives, competitors, insights, tone, style, timelines, budgets and more.
Without a solid brief, your mind won’t have the focus it needs. You will trip, fall and stumble through the creative process and your chances of finding a golden nugget of an idea are slim to none.
If you’re the one writing the brief then research, research, research before you tackle it. Obviously the Internet offers a glut of information, but you should also get out from behind the screen and look further afield.
Conduct site visits, visit libraries, museums and galleries, go mystery shopping, quietly observe from a distance, conduct interviews and surveys, sample, experience and immerse yourself in the project for as long as it takes.
Then, when your brain is bursting with relative information, write the brief.
50 White Boxes, 1 Great Idea
So, now that the brief is sorted, how can you rid yourself of crap ideas to find the nugget you want?
For me, it’s a simple yet incredibly effective exercise I learnt from someone (whose name escapes me) about five years ago at a lecture I attended while taking part in the advertising course Award School – props to that guy, whoever he was, I owe you one.
EDIT – I remembered who it was! It was Chris Northam then working at GPY&R in Melbourne, but now seemingly at R/GA in New York. Cheers, Chris!
It’s called ’50 White Boxes’ and it goes a little something like this. You get a nice big sheet of plain white paper. No lines please – ideas don’t like lines. On this piece of paper, draw some boxes. I like portrait ones, and try to fit 3 rows of 6 per A3 sheet. Draw 50.
Now fill each box with something relevant to the brief. It doesn’t have to try and solve the brief directly, it just has to be something relevant. It could be a drawing, a copy line, a quote, an observation, a sketch, a little thought or whatever.
It doesn’t matter really, this process isn’t about polish and refinement, it’s about purging your mind of crap so that you can get to what lies beneath. The trick here is to keep going, and don’t stop until all 50 boxes are filled. When one idea path hits a dead end, try to reel it back and start another one. Just make sure the brief stays top of mind.
When all 50 boxes are filled, start to see if you can make any connections between them. Maybe the visual of one can go with the copy from another. Perhaps the way you’ve structured one idea can be flipped on its head and done the way you had for another. Hopefully, somewhere in your 50 boxes, there is an idea with legs – one that has that little special something that makes it worth investigating.
Pick your top three, four, five, ten or whatever, and start to work them up and flesh them out. Do whatever you need to make them fully formed ideas, perhaps with some explanation of how they could be applied to your project.
It’s always good to get some feedback at this point. Often, when you’ve been so engrossed in a project you become too close to it and it can become hard to know if you have nailed a slam-dunk or shot an air ball. Getting outside input can help you make a final selection on the idea you’re going to run with, or go back to the drawing board with some valuable market feedback!
It seems like a lot of work, because it is. However, your reward is what we discussed at the start of this blog post – form and pattern.
Now it’s your turn
With a good idea powering the project, you will find the creative development will run so much smoother. Good ideas give birth to smaller ideas and everything will just fall into place.
So, the next time you see a beautiful considered brand rollout, navigate effortlessly through a ridiculously intuitive UI or get helplessly drawn into a creative campaign, remember that at the heart of each there’s probably a good idea that someone, somewhere managed to come up with.
And just maybe, that out-of-the-box idea came from within a little box on a piece of paper.