Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Design Guy, Episode 13, The Mind at Play

Download Episode 13

Design Guy, here. Welcome to the show. This is the program that explores timeless principles of design and explains them simply.

We're talking about the nature of the creative process, and the things we can do to get a handle on it. Last time, we spoke about the creative mind. We described how the conscious and the unconscious parts of our minds work together to help us solve problems and combine elements into ideas. And we likened this mental partnership to making a stew, or building a compost heap. And this is to say that, in our normal, conscious state, we gather the raw materials of our project. Then, over the course of time, this stuff is processed by our unconscious mind. Eventually, this stew of materials will be useful to us. But we need time - time enough for our unconscious to do its work. Because it's on this deeper level, the part of us that dreams, that our mind forms the connections that lead to ideas.

The German Philosopher, Helmholtz,(1) summarized the process in three parts. First, a Preparation Phase, where we gather materials, followed by Incubation, when our unconscious does its unseen work, followed by Illumination, when (quote) "happy ideas come unexpectedly without effort, like an inspiration" (unquote). Illumination is that pregnant moment when solutions come forth, the moment we here about in famous anecdotes: Archimedes Eureka moment.(2) Or J.K. Rowling(3) envisioning the entire basis for the Harry Potter books while riding on the train. And, obviously, this is the state we want to be in all the time, if we can help it. So, how can we?

Jack Foster, in How to Get Ideas, lays down the same basic process, but spends the bulk of his book offering ways to condition our minds for it. First and foremost, and above all else, his advice is to have fun. He writes, "It's not by chance that I list having fun as my first suggestion on how to get your mind into idea-condition. Indeed, in my experience it might well be the most important one. Here's why: Usually in creative departments of advertising agencies a writer and an art director work together as a team on a project. In some departments and occasionally in the ones that I headed, three or four teams work on the same project. When that happened in my departments, I always knew which team would come up with the best ideas, the best ads, the best television commercials, the best billboards. It was the team that was having the most fun. The ones with frowns and furrowed brows rarely got anything good. The ones smiling and laughing almost always did. Were they enjoying themselves because they were coming up with ideas? Or were they coming up with ideas because they were enjoying themselves? The latter. No question about it. After all, you know it's true with everything else - people who enjoy what they're doing, do it better. So why wouldn't it be true with people who have to come up with ideas?" (end of quotation). (4)

Or as Carl Jung said, "Creativity is the mind at play with materials it loves."(5)

So, my advice is that you should find ways to play and keep things light. We've got work to do, of course, but we can still adopt a playful seriousness. Or to think in terms of serious play. It's when we're uptight and anal, that we experience a kind of creative constipation. Maybe that accounts for the furrowed brow that Jack Foster was talking about. But, then again, I was just quoting Jung, not Freud, so I'll just move on to some practical suggestions.

1. Play with your materials.
Loosen up and relax and adopt an attitude of "it doesn't matter, I'm just playing." Give yourself permission to just noodle around with things, and see what happens, what shape things take. Forget about rules for a while and just play in the sandbox of ideas.

2. Play with co-workers.
Depending on your office culture, this doesn't have to mean three-legged races down the hallways. But engage in reparte, play with words, joke around, banter, send weird emails, all that stuff. When we ignite that goofy dynamic, and strive to up the ante with each other, we can come up with all kinds of good and unexpected stuff. But the big idea is that you're keeping it fun with each other. There's nothing more deadly to creativity than a miserable team.

3. Play with your subject matter.
Even make fun of the project, make a parody out of it, think of extreme things you would never really do. Pretend you're the creative team at Saturday Night Live and do a total mockery of a mock up. Will you be able to use any of this material? Maybe, Maybe not. It depends on how much irreverance your client can tolerate. But at least you're thinking outside the box. You're bracketing the subject with a broader spectrum of ideas, ranging from the conservative to the outright absurd.

There's lots of other suggestions I can make along these lines, but before it devolves into stuff like holding pajama day at the office, I'll offer one last point.

4. Having fun with ideas means not getting precious about ideas.
As much as we've been giving attention to the subject, we shouldn't think of ideas as precious or rare. True, some are stronger than others, and truly world shaking ideas don't come along every day, but it's not this class of ideas that we work with every day. And there's a difference between defending a core idea and building a temple around them.(6) If you're getting too precious and protective about ideas, it's probably because you're not coming up with enough of them. Especially, in a team setting, you want to be willing to throw your idea way if someone's got a better one. Think quantity, not quality at first. The quality will come. The cream will rise to the top. But only if you fill the bucket first.

Well, that'll have to do for today. I want to thank you again for tuning in and especially for the encouraging feedback I've received. And if you're just joining us, and you're enjoing this series, please consider letting your voice be heard in the form of a vote at podcast alley, or a comment at iTunes. And don't forget to click that subscribe button. The show is free, and you'll be automatically be alerted to new episodes. But, again I truly thank you for listening, and I hope to have you back next time.





4. Foster, Jack, How to Get Ideas, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 1996


6. This phraseology of "building a temple around ideas" comes from a recent episode of KCRW's The Treatment, in which Elvis Mitchell interviews Tony Gilroy. Gilroy speaks about collaborating with film directors and "trading up" to better ideas by exchanging them with each other. Get the episode here.

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