ShopTalk Designer, Nick Wood, talks about the nature of idea generation, why ideas are scary and why it’s good to look under your bed from time-to-time.
Working in the creative industry, there’s the constant looming presence of a monster under your bed. That one day you’ll wake up and be out of ideas.
It’s the hardest thing about my job (as I’m sure it is the case for many in the creative industry); to sit in front of the same screen as I have done 1000 times, in the same room, drinking the same coffee and often wearing the same clothes, having to come up with an idea that’s novel and interesting. It’s like trying to solve a puzzle wearing oven gloves, but in a world full of deadlines and working against the clock, sometimes that’s exactly what needs to be done. This leads me into asking the question – where do ideas come from?
I’m certainly not going to try and answer that question, but it’s something that I ask myself often and it’s interesting to think about. So in a vague, lofty, and definitely under-qualified attempt to quantify my experience as best I can, I’d like to talk briefly about why I think ideas are so hard to come by and what can help squeeze the goose to lay the golden egg.
I like to think about it in terms of an anatomic diagram with three mains areas. The Eyes; which we use to help us see, steal, and understand ideas (inspiration, in simpler terms); The Hands, which represent experimentation, experience, and brute-force hard work; and The Brain, which literally has a mind of its own and sometimes decides to spew solutions out of nowhere.
The Eyes are relatively straight forward. We see what other people in the field are doing and we take inspiration from that as a starting point. It allows us to build off of all of the past successes and failures someone else has gone through, so that we can start confidently with a solid foundation – but it’s not a perfect solution. It’s all too easy to fall down the trap of opening up a Pinterest board and scrolling for hours and hours; in the hope that something will leap off the screen and into your mind, or to sit and read an article in the hope that someone else has found the fountain of eternal ideas. The undeniable problem is that we’re only looking at ideas that have already been found.
The Hands play their part too, twisting and turning what we find and trying to hammer it into something new or usable. Experimenting with ideas, new or borrowed, is one of the best and most reliable ways to build an outcome and often is the go-to answer for problems that remain elusive. Even if it leads nowhere, it often opens up new or unexpected channels to look down further.
The Hands also help us build a library of techniques to which we can turn to when we’re stuck. Be that a previous solution that we can turn to again, or a way out of the fog to give us clear eyes. Experience is often a far better way to dig yourself out of a hole than an infinitely scrollable, infinitely fruitless inspiration board.
‘Using our Eyes and Hands is the only way we can control the flow of ideas that come through our minds, but it’s frustrating that there’s not a simpler, more guaranteed solution.’
The fast-track way to ideas that we’re all after happens to be the wild rabid beast that we’re all trying to tame, The Brain. If only there was a way we could tell The Brain to come up with a novel idea out of nowhere, solving all of our problems and squashing the looming figure in the back of our minds.
One of my favourite soundbites of all time is Neil Gaiman’s response to the question – ‘Where do you get your ideas?’ – in which he illustrates the thought process of where an idea for a story may come from:
‘Everybody knows that if you get bitten by a werewolf when the moon is full, you will turn into a wolf. You know that. Then there’s that moment where you’re sitting thinking… what if a werewolf bites a goldfish… Or if it sinks its fangs into a chair, and what if you’re sitting in that chair and the moonlight touches it and slowly starts to feel more wolfish and it growls… and then you’d have to set the story in the winter because you would need people to try and figure out why there are chair legs prints in the snow.’
It’s the notion that a trivial, inane thought can be harnessed and cultivated to build a picture of something new. Maybe an idea isn’t a golden nugget to be panned for in the dirt, but a seed that needs love, attention, and time to grow. Gaiman continues to talk about how writers (or creative thinkers in general) do not necessarily have more ideas than anyone else, but train themselves on when they should listen to their ideas and when they shouldn’t. This allows them to build off of those lateral leaps that lead from a blank screen to the finished product, following Alice down the rabbit hole, and putting what they find down on paper.
‘So perhaps we don’t need to train our brains to come up with ideas out of nowhere, but train ourselves to know when we’ve had an idea and what to do with it. As with everything else – it’s about practice and exposure.’
As I said at the start, I’m not going to attempt to answer the question – where do ideas come from? – but explain that I take comfort in the fact that when I fear the monster under my bed, I remember that maybe it’s just a werewolf-goldfish who has the answer for me.
By Nick Wood