Thursday, November 8, 2007

Design Guy, Episode 12, The Creative Mind

Download Episode 12

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

We live in a create-on-demand world, and, whether you're a graphic designer or a college student working on a writing assignment, or a podcaster trying to come up with his next episode, the question is the same. How can we gain some control of the creative process, so that our minds and imaginations are productive when we need them to be?

As we established last time, creativity is a process. It's often slippery and disorderly, and we can make huges messes along the way, but it IS a process. And AS a process, it consists of steps and actions - practical things we can DO to encourage our productivity. And this ought to encourage us, since we can be proactive in our creativity, rather than passively wait around for ideas to just happen to us.

We also spoke about ideas, because we need ideas, large and small, to get us through our project. But we demystified the subject by explaining that ideas aren't of otherworldy origin, or the domain of the supercreative, but simply new combinations of old elements. Ideas feel fresh because we've made a new juxtaposition of things. So, the trick is to find relationships between these old elements, and put them together in interesting ways to create a new effect or perspective. This is a bit like our reaction when we see people get together. We know our friend, John. We know our friend, Susan. But then they hook up and become a new idea, called John-and-Susan, and it changes our perspective. There's a new dynamic, a combined effect that's different than when they were apart. In the realm of music, someone took rhythm and blues and put it together with country to create a new idea in music, which we know as rock 'n' roll. In the realm of graphic design, Saul Bass(1) took our old fashioned idea of what a movie poster was, and married it to a graphic, modernistic sensibility, and influenced generations of designers as a result. On an every day level, our design compositions are merely new arrangements of the familiar elements of design. It's their organization and layout, the combinations we come up with, that makes them feel like either a new idea or a cliche.

And just a word about cliches. In the realm of ideas, cliches represent the stale side of the spectrum. Cliches are trite, worn out ideas. We've seen or heard them so many times that they've lost their impact. Designers still embrace them, though, because they are so familiar and they communicate so instantly. But smart designers put a fresh spin on the cliche. They add a twist, they augment a cliche with another element, until they've cast the old idea in a new light, making it a somewhat new idea. So if you're frustrated by all the cliches you seem to generate, no need to fret. Just use them as a starting point toward something new.

But returning to the original question about how we sieze control of creativity, its helpful to understand a bit about how that thinking organ between our ears works. After all, creativity is a work of imagination, it's a process of the mind. So, if we can gain some insight into how our minds work, then we can work with it, rather than forcing matters.

Now, there are theories or models about how the mind works. One model describes the mind in terms of its conscious and unconscious parts. The conscious mind represents our wakeful state or level of awareness. But the unconscious mind operates below the level of our normal awareness. It is the part of us that dreams and sorts out the stimuli we receive on our conscious level.

But in the interest of keeping things straightforward and practical, we can think of it this way: As we receive stimuli from the world around us, and as we collect the raw materials of our project, our unconscious mind goes to work on them at a deeper level. It's like we're putting together a stew, and placing it on the backburner of our brains. In the course of time, we consciously toss more things into the pot, where they sit and simmer. What's interesting thing is that we can we can decide to stop thinking about our project, yet our unconcscious mind is still working on it. This should set us at ease in the knowledge that there's a solution waiting to emerge, we just need to gather materials and give it time. This technique is also called composting, which is a nice image for the way our mind converts raw materials into a rich and fertile source for us to draw from.

I believe this is why procrastination is common among creatives, and shouldn't necessarily be thought of us as a bad thing. Because if the unconscious requires to time to do its thing, then it stands to reason that a project can be started too early. Hence, that blank page syndrome I mentioned in the last episode. We may be creatively blocked because the ingredients in our mental stew pot need time to coalesce. The compost heap needs to go through the chemical changes that will make those raw materials useful to us.

But to wrap things up for today, we've identified the first practical thing we can do. And that's to collect those raw materials. We do this in addition to the information gathering we've done with our client. These raw materials are what James Webb Young describes as "specific knowledge about products and people, and general knowledge about life and events."(2) And in light of this discussion about how our minds work, we've got excellent motivation to do so, because we realize that it's not a dry research exercise. It's a strategic, creative tactic. It's a way to set our unconscious mind on the problem early, so it can do its unseen work, sorting out elements and forming connections, so it can supply us with the ideas and solutions that we'll need later.

But that's it for today. I'll be posting show notes and references at my webpage, which is Music is by If you're finding this series helpful, I welcome your feedback in the form of a comment at iTunes or a vote at podcast alley. Well, I thank you again for your support, and for listening, and I hope to have you back next time.


1. Saul Bass On The Web

2. James Webb Young, A Technique for Producing Ideas, McGraw-Hill, 2003

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