It is true that I have a lot of interests. Yesterday I indulged my impulse to bike around and explore foreign parts of Brisbane. I painted a little, and knitted a little, and read a lot. I picked up some sewing supplies for pending projects.
In 1939, an advertising man by the name of James Webb Young* put out a little pamphlet on generating ideas, and the crucial beginning of his five-step method is to gather raw materials—as broad a collection as possible, to supply yourself with a very deep reservoir of old things to combine in new ways.
For this is what an idea is, according to Young (p. 19): ‘an idea is a new combination.’ This is what is at the heart of Maria Popova’s brain-titillating site Brain Pickings, on which she argues (and demonstrates daily) that ‘creativity, after all, is a combinatorial force. It’s our ability to tap into the mental pool of resources—ideas, insights, knowledge, inspiration—that we’ve accumulated over the years just by being present and alive and awake to the world, and to combine them in extraordinary new ways. In order for us to truly create and contribute to the world, we have to be able to connect countless dots, to cross-pollinate ideas from a wealth of disciplines, to combine and recombine these ideas and build new ideas—like LEGOs.’
While Young (p. 26) recommends an index-card filing method of collecting one’s ideas, a recent Design Matters interview with Ken Carbone reveals another method. Carbone’s journals have become somewhat legendary—he has been keeping them for fifteen years after having had the privilege to see Paul Gauguin’s journals in a museum’s archives. In his journals, Carbone documents his life, takes sketch-breaks at museums on his lunch breaks, records noteworthy events and writes mini book reviews, obsessively recording details chronologically that he refers to years later to mine for ideas.
‘Every really good creative person in advertising whom I have ever known has always had two noticeable characteristics,’ Young (p. 24) insists. ‘First, there was no subject under the sun in which he could not easily get interested… Every facet of life had fascination for him. Second, he was an extensive browser in all sorts of fields of information.’
Young’s ideation method is as follows (p. 40):
First, the gathering of raw materials—both the materials of your immediate problem and the materials which come from a constant enrichment of your store of general knowledge.
Second, the working over of these materials in your mind.
Third, the incubating stage, where you let something beside the conscious mind do the work of synthesis.
Fourth, the actual birth of the Idea—the ‘Eureka! I have it!’ stage.
And fifth, the final shaping and development of the idea to practical usefulness.
I have three types of books in which I record various stages of my ideation process. Most ideas get their start in something completely foreign: usually they strike me when I am knitting. Knitting lulls me into a concentrated meditative state, and my thoughts usually concentrate on a creative problem. When they arrive, I note them down in my Ideas Book, whatever my first impressions of them. They can be sifted and developed later—what matters initially is that they are captured. Rarely can I move directly to producing the idea, however.
My ideas graduate to a funny little sketchbook full of thumbnails, layouts, hand-lettering tests and border developments. I need a secret place to try my idea out, see what it might really look like when it takes form, work through the details of it. Sometimes I rush this stage, but I am beginning to enjoy it. I can take this book out for coffee or tea, and draw and draw until I can’t represent the idea any more, or make lists that extend a previous idea.
My most polished books, my ‘real’ sketchbooks, are full of life drawings and field sketches. Curiously enough, these books represent the beginning of the path to an idea: they accompany me on adventures through Europe and around Brisbane. They are a way for me to consciously explore what I see, because I carefully note down structures and colours. These sketches, more broadly, are representative of my interests—of taking time out from the solid work of painting to refresh myself and immerse myself in new experiences, to learn new things and incorporate this new knowledge into my reservoirs. Ready to be connected in new ways with other knowledge, later.
‘Part of it, you will see, is a current job, and part of it is a life-long job,’ (Young, p. 26).
Do you know Kate Davies? She’s a formidable academic knitter living in my erstwhile home of Edinburgh, and the talent behind the above O w l s jumper. Her blog was the first I started following, and it set the bar decidedly high. You can find my Owls on Ravelry.
* Young, James Webb. 2003 . A technique for producing ideas. McGraw-Hill: New York. (↬ Maria Popova’s article led me to spending a fiver on this little book.)