Where do ideas come from?

Creative people don’t just have endless ideas; they collect and cultivate them. Ideas take time. I had a boss once who didn’t understand how my MA would make me any better at my job, so she refused to help me fund it. She was happy to pay for software courses, but a course which focused on research and ideas – intangibles – seemed irrelevant to her. I’m sure she’s not alone in this view, but it’s a view which undervalues a design education and assumes that skilled use of software is all that makes a designer. It is not. Software is what makes the idea visible and communicable to people who can’t visualise from language and sketches, but it’s not design. Design is ideas, actualised.

The best designers are able to make leaps – between information and ideas. They are able to find new ways to say something which has been said a hundred times. They are able to bridge a gap between you, the client, and your customers. They’re able to communicate and to facilitate communication. None of this is about software. Software is a tool, and a designer is a craftsperson.

A design education is about learning to articulate and actualise your ideas – let’s face it, the greatest idea in the world is not going to help you if your designer cannot translate it to the page or screen – but that idea comes from a learnt design process. It’s a skill you hone over the years – taking the information in your head, applying a creative solution, and then bringing that solution to life. Because of this, design is about observation, research, inspiration.

When I first taught undergraduates, back in 2005, the internet was huge, but not what it is now. Still, it was the go-to medium for research for my students. That and the design press. I saw, more and more, that design was being recycled. I tried to install into my students the idea that design, writing and all communication, benefits from a wide range of sources of inspiration. Cast the net wide. And don’t be inspired only by the visual. There are all kinds of art forms – music, literature, art – which are there to make you think, interpret and make associations between your own experiences and what you are viewing. There’s science, sport, dance, theatre, films, philosophy. The internet has put the whole world at our fingertips, so to just blow the same furrows over and over and expect a rich harvest is counterintuitive. But it’s easy. And sometimes, when you’re a first year undergraduate, easy is what you choose. Ten years down the line, however, you can look back and appreciate how important it is to be aware. Aware of history, of social issues, of current affairs. Aware of the evolving ways we communicate with each other. Aware of the way we form communities.

Paul Smith said (in his book of the same name):

You can find inspiration in everything,
and if you can’t, look again

I believe that’s true. I think as a writer and designer it is my duty to make sure the things I look at are diverse and that I always look at them with curiosity. It might seem irrelevant what your designer gets up to out of work hours, or how they see the world. But it isn’t. It’s important. I have, in the past, hired junior designers based on a strong portfolio of diverse ideas only to find once they were working in my studio that they did not have a thirst for knowledge, that those ideas were well drawn out by an excellent educator and to do the same in a studio environment is often more time consuming than what you can afford. When I speak to a young designer now I always ask about interests, hobbies, opinions. When I advise students on their portfolios and interviews, I stress this point.

Read as much as you can. Have opinions on it. Look at things, don’t just walk past them. Ask questions. Speak to people who are different to you. Keep a journal or a sketch book. Learn new things. Perpetual curiosity is the ideal.



This is the first in a series of posts on the theme of Perpetual Curiosity. They will take the form of articles, photo essays and, probably, some design work.