To be able to orient ourselves in the world, we develop prejudices. Not in a harmful sense. But in order not to lose ourselves in the unfamiliar. We judge a situation based on our previous experiences and decide accordingly. These pre-judgments are like a template through which we see the world.
That’s helpful when visiting another city, learning a new program, or on our first day at a new job. Our experiences give us a sense of security and guidance.
However, this skill gets in our way when it comes to developing ideas. Children are much freer in this respect. We, adults, look at things in a biased way. A coffee mug is for drinking, a chair is for sitting, and a pencil is for drawing. Period. Or maybe there are other options? If you were born in the 80s like me, you know, for example, that there was no better tool for unwinding tangled tapes from audio cassettes than the pencil.
Let’s look at things through a child’s eyes as we search for ideas. Children are unprejudiced. They have no template yet, no bias. They look at objects they encounter from all sides. They twist, turn, play, and try all sorts of things with them. They discover.
Seeing without knowing is something we can learn again. Only when we can break away from our established prejudices do we recognize new connections because new connections are what make ideas original.
My post 1+1=0 was about not overloading our work with information. Otherwise, we lose our audience. Be it illustrations, blog posts, or advertisements. In the meantime, two more examples caught my eye.
The movie Terminator 2 was a revelation to my 13-year-old me. It was the only movie in my life where after the credits rolled, I rewound the VHS tape right away to watch it again. I could almost speak the dialogue simultaneously.
One day when I held the DVD in my hands featuring a 17-minute more extended Director’s Cut, I couldn’t wait to watch it. Seventeen more minutes of Terminator! A childhood dream came true.
But the disillusionment was huge. The additional scenes were strange to the point of disappointment. Not only did they seem unnecessary, but they pushed the Terminator character in a different, almost ridiculous direction. Since then, I only watch the original cinema version. Again less was more.
I found another example in D&AD’s The Copy Book. Jim Durfree writes about professional writing:
“When you get your copy to the point where you’re really, really happy with it, cut it by a third.”
On the one hand, criticism and the opinions of others can encourage us. We learn from the experience and mistakes of others. That is precious for our development. How often have professors, fellow students, and clients opened my eyes in despair? Communication is an essential tool for creative work.
On the other hand, the quality of our work is highly dependent on our ability to protect ourselves from external influences and opinions when necessary. For only in silence can we listen to our inner voice.
But each person is different in this respect. Brainstorming in a group, for example, can inspire some people’s creativity. In conversation, they bubble with energy and ideas. For others, however, collective thinking is counterproductive. They need time alone to think about the problem deeply and introspectively.
Figuring out what supports or hinders our creativity is an exciting process. Recognizing our highs and lows, and perhaps even logging them in writing, can bring about fundamental change.
Sometimes we have clear pictures in our heads. Be it an idea, an illustration, or a clear vision of which new table would fit perfectly in our living room. As clear as the images may appear in our mind’s eye, trying to describe them to another person is usually doomed to failure. Others can’t see what we see by telling it with words.
The same is the case with music. We ask a friend, “What is the title of this song?” and start whistling, humming, or tapping the melody. In our head, it’s spot on, while the other person has no clue at all. We can’t understand why she does not recognize it. It’s so obvious! When we finally remember the song’s title, enlightenment strikes, and she goes, “Oh, I see… I would never have recognized that.”
We are primarily visual beings. Seeing and recognizing comes easily to us. I never explain my illustration ideas to the client. I have to show them. For one thing, when I try to visualize them, I first recognize for myself whether the concept works at all. On the other hand, they give the client and me a joint basis for discussion.
It is a phenomenon that only happens in the dark: a faint star will disappear once we look into the night sky and stare directly at it. We perceive its light only when we let our gaze jump and dance around the star. The reason for this lies in the anatomy of the eye.
It is the same when searching for ideas. As soon as we concentrate too much on it, we lose sight of the essentials. Our creative mind becomes stiff and stuck, but that will never work.
Original ideas don’t fall from the sky. We need to discover them. They arise through new connections, and we only find them once we let go and let our gaze jump and dance around them.
Humans are sensitive creatures when it comes to paying attention. In design, illustration, and especially advertising, the now hackneyed-sounding guideline “Less is more” applies. After twenty years of experience, I can agree with this, too, when conveying messages to the viewer fast and immediately.
Let’s take my Mindshot-series as an example. I don’t refer to the minimalistic, black-white-red drawing style, which is just an inevitable reflex to the attempt to visualize complex content in a concentrated way. It’s about the message.
After hundreds of illustrations and thousands of ideas and attempts, at some point, I was able to realize: the illustration collapses as soon as it is overloaded with information. So the challenge is removing as much information as possible while it still works. Like a chef who is preparing the poisonous blowfish, this sometimes requires meticulous dissection.
We see the principle every day in advertising. Effective advertising conveys one main piece of information.
A car ad cannot unfold all the benefits of the vehicle on an A4 page or in a 10-second commercial. It cannot show to the same extent how fast, environmentally friendly, safe, economical, exclusive, status-enhancing, and beautiful the car is.
Well-done advertising distills the product’s advantage and conveys it unambiguously. Otherwise, our brain pulls the handbrake on too much information and turns its attention to something else.
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.
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.”
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.
A student said she doesn’t share her work and ideas on the Internet. She is worried that someone will use them elsewhere without her knowledge, even making money from them. We have only two options here:
In 2003 I worked as a comic artist for an advertising agency. My boss at the time, Andrea, noticed that I was taking notes on my drawings during all our meetings and every brief feedback. She said this sentence, “The smart one writes it down, the dumb one remembers it,” which has remained in my memory. So often, we forget things. Yet we were so sure we would remember. Then we get annoyed when we have to ask the customer or teacher.
But taking notes is not only helpful in conversations with others. Without a notebook or sketchbook, a thinking mind is like a gold panning sieve with large holes. So many creative ideas, clever ideas, and ideal solutions slip through our fingers because we haven’t captured them at the moment. This can be recognized because long-forgotten thoughts jump at us when we browse our old notebooks.
On the other hand, we can also see it like Stephan King, who says: “A writer’s notebook is the best way in the world to immortalize bad ideas. My idea about a good idea is one that sticks around and sticks around and sticks around.” So maybe we just need the fat gold nuggets in the sieve after all? The fat fish in the pond?
Good ideas don’t come to us and don’t just strike us like lightning. Good ideas want to be found. They hide behind the obvious, the mundane, the banal. They lie beneath the surface.
To find them, we have to dig. Sometimes with our bare hands. As gold diggers, we work our way through the surface. In the search, we can despair, for it is arduous and sweaty. Sometimes we come across a lump of gold, only to realize that it’s just a light-colored clod of the earth. We want to give up, but we can’t. We know it must be here somewhere. So we keep digging and digging until we reach the place where no one has been before. Then we climb back up and show the world our treasure.