Off-topic #1: Concepting, forget about it.

OFF-TOPIC: in short installments I’ll be writing a chronologically linear set of essays on creativity, concept development and design. One day it may turn out to be a book. Enjoy, discuss, react.

Yesterday I did my umpteenth training on concepting (developing conceptual creative ideas) and I think I taught myself more than anyone else. Since embracing the word concept and concepting several years ago, mostly as a means to improve quality in creative projects, I have finally seen that it’s the wrong way to look at creativity.
In my quest I have been trying to make lists of what makes a good concept. How in a couple of easy steps everyone could come up with a clear creative concept. And along the way I have dismissed most books that are written about concepting. They are invariably untolerable for wanting to make concept development something that is either highly spiritual or extremely calculating.
Amongst my many missteps in this journey was dismissing James Webb Young’s
‘A technique for producing ideas’. A simple 5 step way of coming up with ideas.

  1. Define the problem
  2. Gather the information
  3. Search for the idea
  4. Forget about it
  5. Implement the idea

Despite knowing better I always had a gripe with step 4: forgetting about it. Even though I have read how the mind works* and how I should trust my subconscious mind to slowly digest what I have been feeding it in raw information and come up with the solution for me, I want to have control.
Creativity is not about control. It’s about giving direction, not about steering your brain to excellent ideas. Taking a shower, going for a run, driving a car, it all gives my subconscious mind time to work and it’s when I have my best ideas. James Webb Young is right. You should forget about it.
So these steps above are not a direct route to a great idea, but more of a general approach to the order of activity. There’s a lot to be said about step 1. An exact definition of the problem usually harbours the answer. But I’ll get into that some other time.
Because step 2 to me is absolutely key to developing your creativity. In ‘A technique for producing ideas’ two separate moments for gathering information are identified.
1: when you need information for a project because you are working on it.
2: any other time.
As a creative person the information/ideas/inspiration you have at the ready are essential building blocks for your ideas. You can’t combine two things you have never heard of. You can’t come up with something better if you don’t know what went before it.
Or in the words of James Webb Young:

‘Designing is basically the practice of combining stuff; ideally in ways that haven’t been seen before. So the more stuff you know (about everything), the greater the chance you’ll find a relevant and distinctive, and therefore effective (and original) combination.’

So an absolute-no-holds-barred-full-on professional curiosity is key to what I’d like to call your creative capital. The source material for any idea you’ll come up with. Any movie you see, any music you hear, any discussion you have is possible source material. But since you can not remember everything and not everything is of equal value of you as a source material for your ideas, it’s a good idea to get a big box, an evernote-account or a scrapbook to gather your creative capital. In OFF-TOPIC I’ll be sharing mine.

* in the excellent book: ‘How we decide’ Jonah Lehrer teaches us how our subconcious is doing a lot of the heavy lifting and we mostly seem to ignore that.