Do good ideas have requirements? We investigate with Two Times Elliott, Vrints-Kolsteren, Porta Rocha and more
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 are the requirements for creative forethought? Is there anything that’s necessary and what is detrimental? We’ve spoken with a plethora of insightful voices to grasp their perspective on what is needed for good ideas to happen; be it the more superfluous notion of being surrounded by inspiring objects of design or if the tools at one’s disposal have a more pivotal role then expected.
It seems to be the general rule of thumb that creatives work better with others, benefitting from the support, distraction, comradery or motivation that being in a community provides. For the likes of New York-based design studio Porto Rocha, led by partners Leo Porto and Felipe Rocha, ultimately all the work they produce is the result of a collaborative process, telling us “we believe in fostering open and critical dialogue between ourselves and our team,” in doing so “bringing different perspectives to the table, bouncing and colliding ideas that take us to less expected solutions, faster.”
Unsurprisingly, across the pond it is no different for London-based climate club Adapt who, similarly to Porto Rocha, are run by partners Richard Ashton and Josie Tucker. “With Adapt, we are almost always working together,” they explain, “if things are done individually we will use each other for constant feedback.” The success of this working relationship is how comfortable they find working and responding to one another, helping them move at a faster pace.
Another design power-couple is Antwerpian design studio Vrints-Kolsteren, run by Naomi Kolsteren and Vincent Vrints, who explain that despite always working together “it’s not that we are constantly working simultaneously on every project,” Kolsteren tells us, “but we switch a lot and depend on each other for constant feedback.” Having had to makedo without an intern for the majority of 2020 due to COVID-19, Kolsteren notes that they miss having an intern in their process due to gaining a new perspective. “It’s interesting to have a fresh wind blowing through the studio every few months… it gives us new insights,” they explain.
It’s interesting to have a fresh wind blowing through the studio every few months.
“Collaboration isn’t just about better ideas and outcomes but also the amazing support you receive, and also the speed at which you are able to overcome problems,” Narrate’s Rachel Long–Smith tells us, explaining that there is always someone there to help you when you get stuck. “Even if you don’t agree with their solution,” she adds, “often just speaking about the issue can help you see things more clearly and enable you to come to your own conclusion.” Collaboration in this sense is problem-solving, becoming the support to good ideas. “By presenting your concept to others,” Marion Bisserier of London-based design agency Two Times Elliott explains, “may it be verbally or visually, you are simultaneously putting it to the test.” Bisserier suggests that good ideas can become more clear and nuanced through a collaborative lens. Finding the notion of questioning a healthy exercise in design – making ideas go “from good to great” – the personable element of that has clearly become more challenging due to the effects of COVID-19, in the required remoteness of creative work. “It takes time to adjust and give someone a call instead of asking for their opinion face to face,” Bisserier remarks, “but it’s really worth it and makes a difference in the projects in the long run.”
Here lies the wonder of the creative industry, and the encapsulation of maintaining a creative practice; the sense of community. Design can technically be done in total isolation – as has been the case for many in 2020 – with the input of only a single individual, but the beauty is found within company. It’s almost neanderthalic, at the core of our instincts we find creativity and community, bolstered all the more by each other.
That being said however, working with others isn’t always symptomatic of ‘good ideas.’ “I worked on my own for almost 15 years,” Tristan Ceddia explains, before being joined in his studio space by creative and friend Rick Milovanovic. Founder of Melbourne-based design practice Never Now, he tells us “I’d never worked at another studio, or collaborated with another graphic designer before,” explaining that “it took me a really long time to find someone I was comfortable working with.” Instead, Ceddia draws on more external inspiration, inspired by “the looser, more obscure decision making I see out there in the world.” Although also surrounding himself with beautiful objects in his studio, he explains “I’m interested in what’s happening outside of the design consciousness, in nature,” seemingly “out of necessity.”
Bringing artefacts from the outside world in, note the inevitability of good ideas sprouting from “beautiful things,” explaining that the objects in question don’t have to be “special;” far from it in fact. They “can be very normal or ordinary,” Kolsteren recalls, “over the years, we collected a lot of things that we find interesting,” suggesting that their collection is not a curated work of well known designer’s work, but instead an appreciation of the discrete and inconspicuous. Interestingly, many of their collected objects have been the result of collaboration, often working with artists and holding on to some of the resulting pieces. “These artists are mostly friends that are in the beginning of their careers,” Kolsteren explains, “their art has become important in our lives and sort of grows with us.”
It seems characteristic of designers specifically to be not just collectors but curators; often taking a more ‘slow-fashion’ approach to tat by amassing objects that have a history or a rarity. Maybe it comes down to the requirement for reasoning burrowed deep into one’s subconscious thought from design education, maybe it’s the sense of ownership over something so considered or maybe it’s the element of refinement, concept and reasoning bleeding from one’s design practice into the real world. That being said, there are certainly contrasts and extremes.
Our subconscious manages to solve things in ways that often surprise us.
Contrary to the self proclaimed “hoarders” that are Adapt, Long–Smith recalls “although I love to surround myself with things that I would class as good design, I actually don’t feel like these things make me more likely to be creative,” finding inspiration more along the lines of Ceddia’s mindset. “I believe that creativity comes from deeper inspiration which for me comes from absorbing everything around me,” involving her own experiences and past research. With this in mind, bad design and bad ideas are also significant. “I actually think that being aware of bad design is more important to creativity than surrounding yourself with good design,” Long–Smith explains, adding “from my own experience, frustration with bad design typically inspires me to be more creative and improve it.”
This may be the issue underlying the creative community generally; the fear of failure and the equivocation of mistakes. Arguably with the anonymity and pace of social media, along with the design industries significant weight it places on contributing to the latter, that harbours the perfect conditions for criticism rather than critique. As Long–Smith suggests, it is through making mistakes and the lessons learned as a result that not only improves your personal practice but can help push the boundaries of contemporary design by simply asking ‘why?’ Likewise, Bisserier draws attention to the latent concern behind expectation in design, with the frustration seeded not in being unable to think of an idea, but rather not being able to concoct the divine solution immediately. “Traditionally our success as designers has been and is still widely quantifiable by our outcomes,” Bisserier explains, “a concrete measure which has become even more instantaneous today due to social media’s growing importance in the design industry.”
Porto Rocha question how much more advantageous we are with all the technology we have at our disposal. “Like most graphic designers, our work is almost entirely digital,” they tell us, explaining that technology is naturally a fundamental aspect of their everyday. “Tech helps us organise, streamline, research and execute our ideas,” they add, resulting in work that is “faster, more precise, more connected and more efficient.” Nonetheless however, they ask “are we more creative?” as a result. Finding it difficult to measure, Porto Rocha explain “on one hand, new tools and technologies allow us to create things that were not possible in the past,” whilst contrarily a tool is simply that – a tool. “It is up to us to be creative with it,” they explain, adding “interestingly, creativity is one of the traits that define us as uniquely human,” being the separating factor between human intelligence and artificial intelligence. “Any tool that is an extension of the hand, or mind, and aids productivity, is of value to a designer,” Ceddia summarises, in support of this approach to technological involvement in creativity.
For some however, the limitations of pen and paper, and the interplay between the latter and digital tools, can be the breeding ground for good ideas. “We try to strike a balance, and always do work that doesn’t require technology, even if it is just for personal enjoyment,” explain. Likewise, Long–Smith recalls that “some of my favourite projects are where you start with pen and paper then continually move between digital and analogue,” adoring the thriving, contrary relationship found in the experimental and unknown outcomes of working this way. It could be argued that the outcome of these limitations can be more supportive of good ideas, rather than a potential intimidation of the limitless content.
“I find that using digital softwares too early on can sometimes deviate my thinking process away from idea generation,” Bisserier explains, finding that in indulging this route she is often tempted to focus on crafting something perfect. “Which may look cool,” she adds, “but is not necessarily the priority at this early stage.” Usually trying to collect her first ‘good idea’ prior to transferring it to screen for refinement. Bisserier does contest that “equally I find that the number of possibilities enabled by digital tools can also multiply your ideas into more ideas,” an idea shared by Long–Smith. “Pen and paper aren’t enough for me,” she explains, despite them playing an essential role in her process which involves scribbling, writing and note making. “Having access to technology and tools means the explorations and opportunities are limitless,” Long–Smith tells us, with refreshing outcomes poised to spark interesting conversation and benefitting the progression of contemporary design.
Within the context of infinite information, in a world of information technology, are there too many references and too great a scope to design for? With a continual bombardment of content, is it no surprise we get stuck for ideas? That ‘good ideas’ seem a rarer species than your common household tabby ‘bad ideas?’ For many, the creative process is simply problem-solving; with ‘good ideas’ being the resultant of solutions to challenges. If time allows, explain that through taking a total break from the issue at hand, “our subconscious manages to solve things in ways that often surprise us.”
I find that using digital softwares too early on can sometimes deviate my thinking process.
In the same vein, the notion of creative block is stereotypically linked to the design field, and similarly is counter-productive to ideation. Returning to Adapt, they recount that “we always find that when you’re at the point when you’re about to give up on an idea because we can’t get it right, that is exactly when we need to keep going,” showing a sense of perseverance the result of which is innately generative of fresh ideas. “We never give up on an idea,” they add, although reassuring the need for breaks, “it sometimes just takes more work than we initially planned.”
This opinion is pretty overwhelmingly shared, suggesting that a tenacity towards one’s creative process is fundamental to having good ideas. “I make a conscious effort to change my perspective and look in a different direction,” when facing a creative block, Ceddia explains. “Really, this can be said for all aspects of life – if you don’t like what you are looking at,” he adds “look around to see what else is going on.” Likewise Kolsteren tells us the importance of breaking your own routine, reasoning that “if you always stay in your graphic design world it can be like being in a tunnel,” she explains. “Try to refresh your mind by doing something completely different,” Kolsteren adds, akin to Long–Smith’s call to “sleep on it.” Finding the result somewhat cleansing, Long–Smith explains that “the best thing that works for me is to pause things and then come back to it in the morning.”
Contrary to Adapt, rather than working straight through the problem, Rocha finds assistance in reprieval, explaining “if I’m in the middle of a creative block spiral, I like to take a break from designing (even if it’s a 15 min break), get some air, go outside, go for a walk, run or bike ride.” In doing so Rocha finds his mind is much clearer, seeing the same challenges it was facing before but “through a different perspective.”
The solution to creative problems can often come quite naturally, as is the case for Kolsteren. “It really grows simultaneously,” she reveals, often beginning with aesthetic visualisation through typographic experimentation. Equally as eagerly, but less immediately visual, Long–Smith tends to begin with research; reading and writing about what seems to be the problem at hand. “I need to really understand the problem and think strategically about the solutions before doing any visual work,” she explains, “this allows me to have grounding that I can regularly refer to to make sure what I am producing is a good and suitable answer to the problem.”
For others, the solution to creative problems is again found in collaboration. “I find it hard to crack a problem or even know exactly what the problem is when everything happens so much in my own head rather than in front of me,” Bisserier explains, opting to talk to her teammates and continue making work to combat a problem. With collaboration at the core of Two Times Elliott, Bisserier explains that it’s a precious act. “We really have this mindset that the projects belong to us collectively rather than attributing them to one designer alone,” she explains, “I think that sense of co-creativity helps to put the pressure aside and encourages me to throw a solution out of my head,” adding “even if it may not be the right one.” In this sense the solution to problems involves dissecting the issue at hand, as Bisserier eloquently describes, “laying things out flat in the open together, even if it has three eyes and one leg at first, is always the way to go I find.”
Almost every creative problem can be solved in different ways.
What all this discussion is indicative of is summarised by Porto Rocha, who explain that “almost every creative problem can be solved in different ways,” being firm non-believers in only a single “perfect, definitive solution.” Analogously, they remark “that’s why we find it super helpful to present two to three contrasting design directions with different approaches,” explaining that the discussion is then driven away from taste and towards a solution.
With the write-off that is the year of 2020, Kolsteren succinctly summarises that “at the moment, it is definitely not an easy time to be creative,” adding “there is a lot going on and that doesn’t make it easier.” With many creatives, Vrints-Kolsteren included, finding great influence in travel, the COVID-19 pandemic has not only put a holt to general livelihood but has also stifled socialising and life-experience, all of which contribute to the formation, development and growth of one’s creative practice. “It refreshed our way of thinking and offered new insights,” Kolsteren tells us, “other cultures have a very different way of approaching typography and colour,” finding that when thrown into a different context you begin to notice the minutiae of daily life that you either hadn’t appreciated before, or seen with fresh eyes. Until things eventually return to normality, this is the reality design operates in, and it’s only conducive of further problems and creative block.
Howbeit, if people are anything they are resilient and they are imaginative. Limitation is often the key ingredient in progression, and with the constraints and circumspection we face now – be it socially or creatively – the resulting work will only push the design field in refreshing and unexpected ways.
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