Let’s not explain the idea. We need to show it

An idea that works in our head can collapse as soon as we try to articulate it. An idea we can articulate can crumble as soon as we try to visualize it. Only an idea that can stand up when visualized has the potential to work.

When I’m working on a conceptual illustration, it sometimes happens that an idea pops up, and I think, “That’s it. That’s on the spot”. But after years of experience, I’ve learned to be especially aware of these “flashes of genius.”

It would be nice if I didn’t have to be. If I could just call the client right after, get their convinced and enthusiastic confirmation, and start executing the project. I would save the client and myself so much time.

But what if the idea fails on paper? What if, for example, the provided color palette is unsuitable for that particular idea? If I underestimate the final format and dimensions? If elements don’t work together the way I thought they would? Or if, on reflection, the idea is simply not original enough? Then I wouldn’t be able to avoid a humble phone call telling the client, “Sorry, that was a dud. Everything back to zero.”

Instead, let’s put our ideas through their paces by creating a visual prototype. In an illustration, that might be a sketch. In a commercial, the creative director and intern might perform the spot. When it comes to movies, a “treatment” is needed.

We have to put the idea into a form that we can actually show and present. Only then can everyone involved see if and how well it works. Everything before that is Russian roulette.

If I’m not nervous about a project, I get nervous

Creative service is not an exact science, whether it’s creating illustrations, an advertising campaign, or a corporate design. Uncertainty resonates throughout the creative process. At the end are questions like: Does the illustration, the ad campaign, or the logo convey the intended message at first glance and unambiguously?

No matter how often we go through it all in our heads, the truth always emerges when we present our design to others. Therefore, personally, a basic sense of nervousness is part and parcel of every project. That helps me stay focused, effective, self-critical, and objective in the service of the client.

When I think of a commissioned project, and I don’t feel nervousness but a sense of calmness, all alarm bells immediately go off. That’s when I get too confident about, for example, the deadline or the illustration idea. The rude awakening occurs at the latest when I sit down at the desk and notice that the execution takes more time than planned or when the idea in my head doesn’t work as well as I thought once it’s on a sheet of paper.

The nervousness that cost me sleepless nights in my studies and the early days as a freelancer has become a well-dosed motor for creative work over time.

When we feel close to a solution, we usually are. Let’s keep digging

Sometimes there is such a feeling of certainty. Like when we are searching for our keys, and we are sure that we haven’t lost them. They must be around here somewhere.

When I’m working on an idea for an illustration and start inspecting my rough sketches, I sometimes think: the solution is here somewhere. I don’t know what’s missing or what I need to connect to make it work, but the idea isn’t far away. Those are the moments when I need to keep digging.

There’s an opposite certainty as well. It feels like a roadblock. It just won’t go any further, even if I stare at the sketches all day. Then it’s essential to let go and head in a completely new direction.

Pressure is no guarantee for brilliant ideas

Pressure may boost productivity. Creativity, however, comes from a different place.

For example, when looking for ideas for a book cover illustration or an advertising campaign, time pressure or the pressure to succeed can fire us up. It bundles our concentration. We are focused and don’t allow distractions.

It’s not the case, however, that creativity strikes us precisely because we’re under pressure. Ideas are not born out of pressure but with it.

“Creativity is intelligence having fun.”

Albert Einstein

Creative thinking arises from the urge and joy of discovery and creation. It originates from silence, being alone, and spending time with our thoughts. That’s why brainstorming sessions in a group are far less effective than if each participant works quietly on their own at first. We can find compelling examples in the book by Jake Knapp “Sprint – How to solve problems and test new ideas in just five days”.

What we can develop, however, is the ability to access creative, solution-oriented thinking under stressful situations. But this is only possible because we have practiced it before in a pressure-free environment till it becomes an unconscious habit (thinking of Mr. Miyagi: “wax on, wax off”).

We can create triggers to push our creative process

Creativity at the push of a button (if there even is such a thing) requires many years of practical experience. Even then, we can never be sure that ideas will pop out of our heads exactly when we need them.

In my experience, however, simple tricks give our creative minds a little support. We can build triggers into our daily lives that put our entire body into work and creation mode.

For example, I always run the same Spotify playlist when looking for ideas for my Mindshot illustrations. Sometimes I even start with the same song for months (currently Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence by Ryuichi Nakamoto). Most of the time, I listen to instrumental music, like movie soundtracks or video game tracks.

Additionally, when I want to work concentrated and effectively, I go to my favorite café and order a cappuccino and sparkling water. So far, this is my best routine to get work done.

Through such developed habits, we condition our minds. We create a button that puts us on autopilot, just like we brush our teeth when we get up in the morning. It signals to our brain, now it’s time to work.

Inevitably, I am reminded of the famous example of the cow whose mouth fills with saliva as soon as the farmer rings the bell. By habit, the ringing signals to the cow’s subconscious, now it’s time for food, and the legs automatically move towards the jug.

Good ideas will stay with us

From my experience, I say that writing down and sketching ideas, be they strong or weak, always has advantages. The more, the better. To see if an idea is good or bad, it usually helps to put it on paper. Once we physically capture it, for example, in a sketchbook, we can let it go. After all, we can recall it at any time. By doing so, we make space in our minds for new thoughts. Moreover, new connections between ideas can emerge at another time. In this way, mediocre approaches often turn into brilliant ideas.

But Stephen King has an entirely different opinion on writing down ideas:


“I think a writer’s notebook is the best way to immortalize bad ideas. A good idea sticks around and sticks around.”

Stephen King

German rapper Sido said something similar. He doesn’t give bad ideas a second chance. If an idea for a beat or lyrics doesn’t catch him in the first few seconds, he drops it and searches for something else.

Each of us will find our method over time. For me, it still helps to jot down as many ideas as possible. However, sometimes I think of Stephen King and Sido. Then I try to filter out the thoughts in my head that seem to stick with me, this particular idea that sticks around and around. Perhaps we would be well advised to pay special attention to these.

Writing about the same topic a thousand times is okay

When I start to write about a topic, I sometimes think, “I’ve written about this before, haven’t I?” But that doesn’t stop me from writing about it again.

I know that today I will use different words. Maybe I’ll use another example this time because I’ve had a new experience in the meantime. I may even contradict my previous thoughts. That’s perfectly fine.

With each day and each event, we learn. We see things today in a new light than we did yesterday and tomorrow. This certainty makes it easy for me just to write away.

About the future of creativity

So many great thinkers write and talk about creativity and their experiences in finding ideas and solutions. Remarkably, there seem to be methods, incentives, exercises, and guides for creative thinking. There are common denominators for such a complex and, at first glance, intangible topic. One example is the so-called Osborn Checklist.

If there is a pattern behind creative thinking, it means that it can be analyzed, categorized, and measured. And we know from our own lives, for example, on social platforms, that systems can be automated (keyword algorithms).

Therefore, we should not be surprised if the development of advertising campaigns, illustrations, logos, movies, or even election campaigns will eventually be taken over by artificial intelligence.

Good advertising, evil advertising (1)

There is something hypocritical about the way we humans deal with advertising. One moment we’re complaining when the YouTube video is interrupted once again. At other times, we’re shivering the whole night in front of a store to get the latest smartphone, which, from a technical point of view, is barely more powerful than the cheaper competition.

If we despise advertising, it is because we are aware that we are not only distracted by it but influenced by it. Advertising triggers our most diverse emotions, which are supposed to animate us to take action. We feel manipulated, guided, glided. We don’t want to be treated like that.

But where is the line between “good” and “evil” advertising? Does it even exist? When I go to the supermarket to buy milk, I’m facing a shelf full of different milk cartons, all carrying the more or less same liquid: Whole milk with 3.5% fat.

But the packages, on the other hand, differ significantly. Some are lost in quantity. They seem to have been designed without much affection. The package shows a glass in which the milk is poured. Since the background is white overall, the milk appears grayish, almost like wet concrete. In addition, the information is kept too small, making it harder to read than the competition’s designs. An interchangeable logo makes the appearance even less attractive. Price 1.39€.

The situation is different with one of the competitor’s products. Again, the packaging says whole milk with 3.5% fat. But here, the info is concise and evident at first glance. The manufacturer’s coat of arms crowned adorns the azure packaging. In the background, radiantly bright milk also flows into a glass with illustrated cold drops of condensation. The packaging design makes you want to drink a fresh glass of milk while conveying a sense of tradition and quality. Price 1,69 €

We eat with our eyes first! Let’s assume that this sentence is true and that the milk in both packages is from the same cow. Have we been manipulated by the excellent design when we reach for the more expensive one? Were we tricked and cheated out of the 30 cents? Or did the manufacturers simply invest more time and money in a sophisticated presentation to offer the customer an exceptional drinking experience? Maybe the manufacturer sees milk as something holy. To him, it’s not just something we pour over our cereal every morning as a matter of course. He sees milk as an elixir. It’s Mother Nature’s gift to humans to survive and enjoy.

We do not know the reason for the additional effort. Maybe it’s about pure profit motive or the founder’s deep appreciation and love of food. But the fact is, we as consumers get more for the 30 cents extra cost. The decision as to whether this “more” justifies 30 cents is then entirely ours.

A toddler does not hang up his drawing. The parents do

“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”

Pablo Picasso

What exactly makes a child an artist? The first thing that comes to mind with this is fearlessness in creating. A toddler who sees a pencil and a piece of paper doesn’t hesitate for a moment. She doesn’t wonder if the paper is rough or shiny. She doesn’t consider whether the crayon is sharpened or dull. She starts, draws lines, taps dots on the paper, and tries different colors.

As soon as she is done, she puts down the pencil and runs to her friends or the next toy. She has already forgotten her work. She does not sign it and then carefully puts it in a folder. For the toddler, the picture has no value. When my son scribbles lines on a paper, I’m the one who keeps it or hangs it on the wall. He, on the other hand, moves on.

From an adult’s perspective, this is enviable. It is not about fearlessness but the absence of judgment. The child does not yet evaluate her work or compare herself. She has no expectations towards herself, her abilities, or her talent and does not think about the expectations of others. She just does it and then does it again.

This approach we can take as a model because, out of fear of the outcome, we often don’t even start or, as Homer Simpson would put it, “Trying is the first step towards failure” 😉

A sketchbook can be an outlet. It’s where we can try things out, make mistakes, and record bad drawings or ideas. The pages are not masterpieces. They are our playground. And when the book is complete, we close it and just move on. 

Creativity isn’t good or bad, nor holy, nor wicked. It’s simply human

When we create things, shape our environment and develop ideas, it triggers the most diverse feelings in us. Often it is frustrating, sometimes fulfilling and satisfying. Even a sense of pride in our own work is possible.

Creative work, it seems, has something magical about it. Sometimes we are overcome with the belief that we alone can change the world, improve it and reach for the stars with our work. To live a creative life is to live a valuable, contributing, good life. Without becoming blasphemous, creation from nothing inevitably has a spiritual, religious connotation. It must therefore be positive.

The truth is that creativity is just as cruel and destructive in nature. Torture methods of all eras are full of creativity. So are smoking campaigns, propaganda tools, and any weapons. Even the targeted starvation of the enemy by cutting off supply passes as a war strategy came from creative thinking.

I’m not sure why I’m formulating this thought on creativity right now. Maybe because I find myself putting it on a golden pedestal from time to time. Sometimes in front of others and sometimes in front of myself. Yet, like everything else that makes up life, it is dual. And thus, responsibility arises within the creative process. I find it grounding to keep this in mind from time to time.

About the two types of impatience

In creative work, there are two kinds of impatience. One moves us forward. The other gets in our way.

For example, let’s assume we take a video game design class and have an idea for a new kind of gameplay. We spend hours late at night and on weekends developing and testing. We impatiently long for a result.

A web designer feels similarly, sitting in front of a programming error and knowing that the solution can’t be far away. His curiosity is on. Even in bed, he thinks about a possible solution and can’t wait to test it first thing in the morning.

When I decided to go into illustration, I couldn’t wait to get my portfolio website online and share it with the world. I worked obsessively on illustration projects, tweaked the design and presentation for months, and prepared my social media channels. I made a detailed plan and worked every spare minute to reach my goal as quickly as possible.

This kind of impatience, triggered by passion, is unbeatably productive.

Another kind of impatience, on the other hand, has a toxic effect in the long run. The impatience for the reaction of others. The reaction to our video game, website, or illustration portfolio. 

Frustration is not far away when we begin to measure appreciation and respect through receiving job requests, likes, comments, or any other feedback. The healthiest thing to do is not to expect anything. We can only experiment, observe, adjust and adapt to our possibilities. Everything else is out of our hands.

Let’s use the time when we hypnotically check our accounts for likes to throw ourselves back with zeal into the projects we passionately can’t wait to realize.

Do you want to see the world like an artist?

Maybe you don’t feel blessed with creative talent or are not yet exceptional in your skills. But there is a hack that allows us to see the world differently and with a new view. It allows us to see it through the eyes of an artist right here and now. Are you ready? Ok.

Look for something natural in your environment, for example, a cloud or a leaf. Your task now is:

How would you explain what you see to a blind person?

Give it a try. I will go into more detail in a future post.