My desk, my raw material

When an idea drought takes hold, rather than just tidying, scrutinise the stuff in front of you to refuel your creativity

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It’s Tuesday, and Tuesday being what Tuesday is, my brain has come to a complete stop. The design juices are simply not flowing. It’s an idea drought. I’m in the middle of a hosepipe ban of imagination liquid. Such a dry, dry Tuesday of what appears to be designer’s block.

Out that window there, someone much smarter than I has gone to all the trouble of writing a book. They’ve sat down, turned their brain on and written lots and lots of sentences until one day, there it is: the guts of an actual printy-inky book. It will appear on shelves in shops and libraries. Their words will be passed down from generation to generation, from father to son, from professor to student. A magnificent book that’ll have pages and a spine and that nice book smell. And a cover.

And the person tasked with designing the cover? Him? Oh he’s spent half the morning absent-mindedly sucking Pez from a plastic Riddler’s jugular, staring out the window at angry defecating geese (coming to an iPhone near you!) whilst thinking of ways to describe creative moistness.

Sorry, Mr Author. Nothing to see here. Not to worry though, for this Tuesday, as with all thirsty Tuesdays, I have a plan! It doesn’t look like one, but it’s definitely a plan. I’m going to have a tidy, because nothing unclogs those idea pipes like a good old fashioned tidy.

For one reason or other, over the last few weeks my desk has accumulated a particularly impressive layer of stuff. Maps and catalogues and bits of paperwork and books and at least one badminton racket. Stuff that needs tidying. It’s not just a case of seductively sweeping my arm across the desk and clearing space, oh no. All of this needs to be scrutinised and absorbed and rehoused. It needs to be looked at.

This may seem like blatant work avoidance, but this isn’t just plucking bellybutton fluff or watching The Wright Stuff or fridge-staring – this is actually an important part of the design process; a sort of meditation. I work along the lines of a technique set out by James Webb Young in his 1939 book, A Technique for Producing Ideas. His approach is basically: gather raw material, mentally digest it, play with it … and then wait for bits of it to stick together and make illogical, elegant connections. New material. He puts it better than that, but that’s the oversimplified gist of it.

It’s a little bit like throwing a pig and a hen into a cement mixer with a loaf of bread and in the hope you’ll end up with a scotch egg, but it’s basically what our brains are doing all the time – metabolising stimuli. Inhale ideas, exhale ideas. You just have to be aware of the process so you can get the most from it – it’s disciplined, structured, perfectly justifiable procrastination.

Today, my raw material is my desk. Flicking through a Vitsoe catalogue and a pile of Herb Lester maps doesn’t feel like work (and it certainly doesn’t look like it) but this activity is infinitely more useful to me than staring at a blank document window or reading a brief for the umpteenth time.

The only problem with this process is that when the drought is over, when the ideas start happening again, I’m almost always on the verge of sleepytime. Bedside pen and paper is essential for anyone with a creative job (despite all the technology at our fingertips, nothing beats paper – ideas need paper), but I still haven’t worked out how to get my ideas down in a way that’ll definitely make sense to me in the morning. I have pages and pages of what I assume were once incredible, civilisation-altering ideas, but are now just gibberish sketches and strings of words (I still haven’t a clue why I wrote “CONCRETE KUBRICK PIXELS” across a page a few months ago, but I reckon it’ll make a great tattoo one day).

I don’t believe in the tortured-artist idea of designer’s block – it’s nothing but a symptom of a noggin in need of a refuel. Tomorrow morning, I’ll be sat at my gleaming white monolith of a desk, staring at the one new bit of stuff in the middle of it. Some words and a crudely-drawn sketch of an idea. Assuming I can read what I’ve written, it’ll be the start of something. Bits of map and shelf and badminton racket. Strategic serendipity. A book cover.

Daniel Benneworth-Gray is a designer based in York. He maintains a blog at his website,, and also tweets regularly at @gray.