Can good ideas be planned? We speak to DIA, Regular Practice, Margot Lévêque and more to find out
The Anatomy of Creativity is a partnership between The Brand Identity and Antalis Creative Power, in which over a series of three articles, we explore and discuss if there are specific components to creativity.
What is a good idea? Is it problem solving, or is it an apparition? Is it spontaneous, or is it grafted? Does it come as a result of rigorous planning, or from one’s own intuition? We’ve spoken to a variety of distinguished voices that are pushing contemporary graphic design, asking what their chosen approaches to ideation are, the role of research towards this endeavour and, simply, what makes a good idea?
The balance between work and life is always the topic of conversation anywhere designers are present. Arguably due to the more personal nature and individual involvement of creative practice, to say that of accountancy or data analysis, it is much harder to make that separation between what you do at work and what you do or think about afterwards. The distinction between self-care and work, as Mirella Arapian of Melbourne-based design studio Mek believes, is absolutely necessary for having good ideas – with a rigorous routine that includes “eight hours’ sleep, exercise, meditation, whole foods, and gratitude.” It is only after doing these daily activities that Arapian feels “happier, more energised, and knows I’m going to have a productive day.” This seems indicative of an almost organic and ethereal process to creative thinking, however, as Mitch Paone of NYC and Geneva-based design agency DIA explains, the creative process leading towards ideation is just as designed as the design itself. “Our studio’s creative process, project management, and atmosphere has been fine tuned to provide optimal working conditions, which we believe results in better work,” he recalls, expressing the importance to physical health too. “Eight hours of sleep, a consistent routine, mindfulness, healthy diet, not partying (too much) are all ways to prepare for the moment you have to ‘create,’” Paone tells us, conceding that it is a luxury but something that can really give one a head start.
I almost always have immediate heart and gut reactions to projects.
For Kurt Green of Edinburgh-based design studio Human Resources, a strict routine has taught him “to be less erratic in work and life in general,” and in doing so it has generally alleviated the anxieties and “general over-thinking traps” that one can often fall into. “My daily schedule is rigid,” Green reveals, “bed at 9pm, rising at 4:30am (I’m fucking useless without a proper deep sleep),” committing to several hours of work before Dad and dog duties begin at around 7am. In clearing the tasks floating around in his head, Green then takes to the day with a clearer mind, telling us “it’s during the morning power walk with the buggy (no headphones for this) that I can get some headspace to think about any design challenges and try to formulate ideas for upcoming briefs.”
With a similar requirement, and indeed enthusiasm, for organisation, Parisian Graphic and Typographic Designer Margot Lévêque exclaims “ABSOLUTELY! For me, organisation is the key to success,” importantly adding “with perseverance.” Unable to concentrate on work without a to-do list, Lévêque plans everything, from yearly hopes, to monthly goals and daily tasks. “I’m not saying that I succeed in doing everything I write in the morning,” Lévêque explains, but notes that the intention of the list is what’s important over the achievements – “just the idea of writing, listing and visualising everything I have to do, it really motivates me to work.”
A planned structure, for people like Tom Finn and Kristoffer Soelling from London-based design studio Regular Practice, is necessary – telling us “the more projects and people you have the more the necessity for this structure is vital,” especially when trying to juggle the individual personalities of those on the team, concluding that it’s all about “recognising styles of working and cultivating it in the best way.”
A good idea means finding the essence of the project.
Somewhat contrary to this is the view held by Gabriel Finotti of the São Paulo and Berlin-based design studio Sometimes Always, who recalls “I never thought about it this way to be honest… I am a very organised person and my environment definitely reflects on my work,” suggesting that “I guess much more on the pragmatic side of things rather than in having good ideas.” Similarly, Benjamin Lee from London-based design studio Accept & Proceed explains how he has never felt a reciprocity between these two elements. “I’ve never really noticed a correlation between how I organise my space and the ideas I have,” adding however, “but my mind is able to move more in the evenings, when there are less distractions… plants help too.”
For Finotti, there is a less immediately emotive response in terms of organisation, using his working hours as an example; “I work five days a week, eight hours a day, starting around 9.30am and finishing around 6.30pm, just like a full time employee would […] but I do that because I think work is just one part of my life and shouldn’t take all of my time at all.” Hesitant from taking any work home, Finotti doesn’t like to discuss work after hours in an attempt to disconnect. “I don’t think we graphic designers are artists,” he explains, “I face my profession like any other, I don’t really see nurses, or accountants, or masons talking about their work so I don’t understand why ‘creatives’ like to do that.” For Finotti there is a more functional purpose for these behaviours, not a pursuit of being in the right mindset for ‘good ideas’ to flow. Similarly, he doesn’t stick to a schedule for this endeavour, but rather to hinder the chance of overlapping projects.
That being said, it could be argued that the result of these actions does lead to better ideas because one is working in a more composed, comfortable and relaxed environment. “I guess in the end all these things contribute to a healthier and controlled environment,” Finotti tells us, “where I have a better track of all the steps of the creative process but they are not necessarily related to having good ideas.”
Drilled in from design education, research is generally accepted as an important part of the design process, be it aesthetic or conceptual, but how significant is research in producing ideas? Succinctly saying “somewhat,” Arapian tells us that research can only take you so far, explaining “I can learn about a subject as much as I can from independent findings, strategy sessions, and client discussions, but research is only the foundation of a good idea.”
In this mindset, research forms the foundation for ideas, but is never the proprietor, instead it is elemental; part of the idea but never the idea itself. Paone agrees, saying that “without strategy and research you have no foundation to work from, thus no real ‘idea’ can be generated.” The concept behind any project, conceptual or commercial, visual or speculative, should be “deeply informed by its content and strategy,” and through the visual conversion of this it will always result in a ‘good idea.’ “It then gets even better if it’s executed with tasteful craftsmanship,” Paone adds.
For Lévêque, hindsight is equally as important to research – allowing herself time to reflect on work, thoughts and designs. “When I have a new project for a client, first we schedule a call so that I understand their request and universe,” Lévêque recalls, “often, they send me moodboards or references, and then I do nothing.” In total agreement, Finn and Soelling explains how leaving time to think is essential, telling us “if you plan things poorly and only leave a small window to work on the creative, the fast approaching deadline can really limit the ability to think things through in its entirety or not develop an idea organically.”
That being said, “research and positioning are vital in arriving at an appropriate response for a client,” Regular Practice explains, noting that “we have several steps we undergo to understand the wants, parameters, restrictions, competitors and audience so that we understand the landscape we are designing something for.” It is from this bedrock of research and consideration, leading to an understanding of what is the appropriate strategy to proceed with, explaining “we sit around the table, pull books down from the shelf, share references on joint slack channels, draw on whiteboards and generally talk it out until we’re confident in what the idea is.”
I’ve never really noticed a correlation between how I organise my space and the ideas I have.
Without putting pressure on herself, Lévêque waits for ideas rather than forcing them, relying on her internal contemplation of the client’s call, the brief and the research. “I see it more as an exchange and a relationship of trust,” Lévêque adds, “I avoid as much as possible watching Instagram or other social networks, it’s the worst trap!” Suggesting that work inspired by Instagram results in something insincere, ephemeral and not creative,” due to the idea stemming from a different author. More often than not, the best ideas are unusual whilst in production, such as Accept & Proceed’s identity for AWO, which utilises the aesthetics and concepts of concrete poetry for the digital rights law firm. These two worlds seem so desperate from one another, however the result is one of the most original identities of the last few years – firmly rooted in concept and research, resulting in a beautiful, thoughtful and functional brand.
Good ideas are also often spontaneous and improved, as discussed by Regular Practice in recalling their work on site at Krabbesholm Højskole where they were fitting a light installation. “We were actively making choices on site rather than coming in with a rigid plan,” he explains, “in this case we had also prepared to be able to be flexible, because we knew our feelings about the design would change when we went on site.” This wasn’t a one off for Regular Practice, often having ideas and adjusting their work during production. “It feels very memorable, because you make decisions that matter,” Soelling and Finn recall, putting oneself into the situation where they’re being exposed to as much information as you’ll have throughout the process. The result has a “noticeable impact on the outcome,” Regular Practice comment, understanding however that “they just happen to be the cherry on top, caveating that there are “obviously those ideas are preceded by 100s of others.”
There is a tenable case for the culture of grinding being an unhealthy one, encouraging people to work incredibly long, late hours to ‘prove’ yourself, particularly for younger creatives; working in an unforgiving and exploitative environment because that is what they are told they need to do to be the best and create the best work. This attitude needs to be rectified in the industry, to make room for compassion, understanding and a separation of work and life, however, this doesn’t mean that one removes hard-work in favour of apathy – far from it.
For creatives like Arapian, her days often involve hard-work and long hours, but that being said, she notes that her best ideas seldom occur at the desk, telling us “it comes down to my life experiences, curiosity and interest in things outside of design,” revealing that she’s currently obsessed with archaeological art, as well as “critical thinking, intuition, and my own personal values.”
In the case of Arapian, good ideas have stemmed from her own dreams inspiring project names to Armenian cobbled streets influencing the pattern design of a brief that had previously found her stumped – or even Paone’s inspiration for a logo, seen in the scratched drawing on a toilet stall. “Looking for connections in unexpected places almost always guarantees surprising ideas,” Paone tells us, “it’s very simple, the wider variety of subjects and skills you learn the more interesting connections you can make! Voila, more ideas!” Finding that the immersion of research and iterations is “the equivalent of screen recording your creativity at work,” reaffirming that one should always remember to hit ‘Save As.’
“It’s difficult for us to even characterise a place or situation as an unusual circumstance to have an idea in,” Finn and Soelling note, agreeing that ideas can manifest from anywhere; from supermarkets and showers, to walking in the park or stress eating, importantly however arriving when “you’re just not thinking of anything in particular.” These ideas will still be subject to development after the seed is planted, Finn and Soelling remark, “ideas still need to be hammered out and shaped into form to actually make sense to other people, particularly clients.”
Somewhat complementary to this is Green’s view on research, who notes that although loving to be fully immersed in the research for a new brief and a new client, he often hangs on his initial reactions. “I almost always have immediate heart and gut reactions to projects,” Green explains, finding “a feeling,” that is then justified through research to externally validate his own view. “For right or wrong, I try to visualise concepts in my head and then apply this to a clients business,” Green tells us, raising an interesting point of our internal biases to research and questioning where the research towards ‘a good idea,’ is simply trying to rationalise our aptitudes.
Green also finds inspiration outside of the working environment, suggesting that “pre-COVID it was the gym, post-COVID it’s hoovering, while holding a child,” where he finds his solutions to briefs. “When the idea does pop up in an unconventional setting, it’s usually a mad dash to find a pen and paper or open notes on my phone to try to get my thoughts down, Green adds, “trying to decipher these notes the next day is another issue.”
Research is only the foundation of a good idea.
Finotti explains how, due to their projects over the last few years at Sometimes Always primarily being identity briefs, research has become an enormously significant part of their practice, and quintessential to creating a ‘good idea.’ “A good idea means finding the essence of the project and, in a way, finding a problem to solve, even if there is none,” he explains, telling us that this usually entails a lot of research to do with the history of the client, understanding the market they are working within, their services and how his work relates to these. “It also means immersing ourselves to the briefing, to the concept, to the name… basically, by doing that, we are looking for a sparkle, a little something that will trigger that ‘good idea.’” Paone concurs, commenting on how often clients rarely know or understand if a design is “formally right or wrong,” but they do understand if it will benefit their business and if it can be easily implemented to do so. “If you’re not informed and versed in your client’s industry it will make it harder to present and discuss the work,” therefore in explaining why is almost more important than what.
As is akin to Accept & Proceed’s rigorous practice, Lee explains how research is essential. “A designer should always be researching and questioning the world around them,” he proclaims, making the point that the “larger your pool of reference,” the greater one’s “capacity for new ideas” is. Especially in a world where the boundaries of thought are under constant attack, it is more important than ever to think outside of established norms. Although an ultimately contentious question due to the nature of commercial design briefs serving the client, the quality of an idea, some argue, can come down to the brief itself. “It also helps when a brief is challenging,” Arapian adds.
Conclusively, the notion of what a good idea is, is entirely ambiguous. For Arapian, a good idea is both the result and the culmination of creativity, research, professional practice and personal experiences, as well as “curiosity, an open mind, and an open heart.” This is achieved in Arapian’s eyes through one’s ability and to be self-critical, willing to act objective to your own thoughts, as well as the removal of ego in place for humility, whereby one’s own creative attitude is indicative of the quality of their ideas. “It’s all about conditions,” Paone dissects, finding that ‘good ideas’ are the results of hard-work and life experience; not under the belief that one person is more naturally creative than another, instead recalling that often creativity is blocked by “ego, fear, doubt and comparison.” Paone explains that good ideas come from having an “open and flexible mind” that is hungry to continue to learn is what “allows creativity to flourish.”
Correspondingly, Finotti comments that “hard work and being open to accept the ideas, being alert to your intuition” is where good ideas are concocted. He continues, suggesting that everyone is in fact creative, with the potential for great ideas, however are mostly distracted and uninterested by their own ideas. “Once you are a graphic designer, you tend to value them more so you become more alert to them,” he explains, “you open yourself more, you are more consciously in search for them even though they come from our subconscious sometimes.” Perhaps this is why it is hard to find, understand and interpret our own ideas, with Finotti indicating that “you have to be willing to go deep down some parts of you, or the other, and that is demanding.”
Green sees good ideas as coming from both an innate and generative perspective, both the result of natural creativity and time on the project, finding his typical journey to be that of a ‘natural creative burst followed by the hard work of iterations, testing and fine-tuning to the point of self-harm (followed by the ecstasy of nailing something that works).” What Green points out, however, is that hard work will never cover the frustration that comes with struggling to articulate his initial creative vision. Meanwhile, Paone explains how simplicity is what makes a ‘good idea, good,’ suggesting that something “simple, direct and unexpected” is often constitutional of a ‘good idea.’
Lévêque contests the questions, telling us “I don’t believe in being ‘naturally creative’, and I don’t believe that you have to ‘work hard’ to produce great things,” rejecting either concept. “I admit, the notion of a good idea bothers me,” believing that a good idea for one person may not be the same for another. “Especially in our creative fields,” she explains, “we are overwhelmed by a lot of content with different styles, so who has the right to determine if it’s a good idea?” Instead, Lévêque sees the basis of creativity as “envy and curiosity,” noting that “if you have that, you naturally want to work.
On top of that, Lévêque contests that the more time you work the greater the opportunity to produce better work. In having more time behind the wheel, one becomes a better designer and ‘good ideas’ become more innately to you. “I’ve noticed that the longer I spend on a project, the better it gets, but I don’t think ‘I work hard,’” Lévêque explains, only working when she feels in the creative headspace. Wholeheartedly in agreement, Regular Practice concurs that “good work comes down to practice, like anything, the more you do something the better you get at it,” a principle they abide to so fervently it inspired their studio, adding, “hence our name.” This understanding is one that drives the studio in their creative process, allowing themselves to fail, learn, grow and develop so that next time they’ll be even better.
In-keeping with Accept & Proceed’s somewhat more speculative practice, blurring the lines between conceptual design, thoughtful typography and identity design, Lee denotes that a good idea solves problems, explaining “it connects, it creates meaning, it helps you perceive the world in new ways.” The role of the client is key for Regular Practice, telling us that a ‘good idea’ is “something that satisfies the brief of the client, but also challenges us.” On top of that, is it “something which resonates with audiences but challenges conventions,” and “something that has longevity but a contemporary freshness.”
Something Arapian touches upon summarises a thread of consistency to many arguments regarding creativity, which is that of sincerity, telling us “a good sense of humour,” is needed for a good idea, “because nothing should be taken too seriously.” Potentially in taking things too fervently one internally places a sombre, burdening professionalism in the room within your head where creativity should be, following Lévêque’s belief that what is crucial lies in own satisfaction in what we make. “The important thing is that we, as creative people, are happy with what we produce, and that the client is satisfied with what we have created,” adding, “for me, that’s ‘having a good idea’ means, no matter what people think!” To this end, perhaps in still maintaining at least an ounce of required seriousness and freeing ourselves from what is ‘expected’ we can push design into a new and exciting direction; full of good ideas that replace seriousness with sincerity.
Alternatively, in answering the question to what makes a good idea, we can take the answer of Finotti, which is simply “I have no idea.”
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