Playing Our Way to Good Ideas
The most overused word, creativity, should in fact be described as discovery.
— Milton Glaser
Whether we’re writing a short story, or creating an illustration for a client, the best works of art and communication always seem to have a strong idea at the center of them.
But how do we come up with a good idea?
Some people seem to be founts of great ideas. When we encounter these people, we compare ourselves to them and often conclude that we aren’t very good at coming up with ideas. We tell ourselves, that ideas just aren't our strength.
In an excellent and brief interview (included below), the iconic graphic designer, Milton Glaser shares a bit of his process and walks us through some examples of how he discovered his ideas as he worked. He shows us that often, good ideas only emerge after we jump in and start playing around. We might start with the first thing that comes to mind, and put together a sketch or a quick draft. This starting point doesn’t need to be any good, it just needs to get us moving.
When we start moving ideas start to emerge. When we start writing, characters show up and stories reveal themselves. When we start drawing, shapes appear that suggest other shapes. Half formed ideas, aesthetic ideas, and a lot of ideas that won’t make the cut. We might even be tempted to settle on of these early ideas, giving in to a certain anxious feeling that this is as good as it’s going to get.
The discipline is to keep working, keep searching until we reach the moment where something surprises and delights us.
It’s a special combination of doing and and paying close attention. When we can learn to do this, we can finally gain access to those interesting, arresting, and delightful things we call ideas.
Here’s the interview:
And here’s a little piece I drew of a heroic sort who’s hard at work. Just look at him thinking up ideas!
More Good Stuff
Nicholas Blechman, Creative Director at The New Yorker Magazine has a nice course on idea generation over at Domestika. It’s a short introduction to a process for idea generation that pairs nicely with the Milton Glaser interview above.
If you’re interested in a deeper, more conceptual dive, Steven Johnson’s book Where Good Ideas Come From is a wonderful exploration of idea generation and the factors that contribute to them.
Something to Try
One little game that I sometimes like to play if I’m stuck for an idea is what I’ll call the “Alphabet Game”. It’s a very simple game where, instead of brainstorming ideas at random, you go through and brainstorm using the letters of the alphabet as your guide.
So let’s say you’re trying to find a name for a male character in a story, you might start with Arthur for the letter A, then Bertrand for B, and so on. Go through the whole alphabet, or stop when you’ve found a name you like. I often find that using an arbitrary rule like this helps me break away from my usual patterns of thinking.