How I Got the Idea

In this extract from the new edition of A Smile in the Mind, Dean Poole, creative director of Alt Group in New Zealand tackles the “secret of secrets – how to get ideas”. Forgetting everything you know, he says, is a good place to start.

In the concluding pages of the new edition of A Smile in the Mind: Witty thinking in graphic design, its authors ponder the birth of the creative idea. “One moment it isn’t there, and the next it is – with nothing in between,” they write. “In the memory, this is the missing instant. ‘You can never’, said Henry Wolf, ‘get the split second when it happened.’” 

The moment that precedes an idea, however, is fertile territory that the authors of the original book were keen to explore in the mid-1990s. They asked several leading designers, from Saul Bass to Alan Fletcher, to shed light on their process and these texts now feature in the new edition in a section entitled How I Got the Idea, alongside new contributions from the likes of Noma Bar, Jim Sutherland, Sarah Illenberger and Mary Lewis.

Here, Dean Poole, creative director of Alt Group in Auckland, New Zealand explains how he works with new ideas – and why figuring out what the idea is supposed to be doing is the most important part of the process.

Ideas come from under a rock at the back of my head, writes Poole. The idea is already there, but I have to uncover it.

I compare the creative process to wandering round a series of rooms. You put everything you know about one subject in a particular room. Over a period of time, those experiences accumulate. You might have a room full of everything you know about gravity. Then you get a project about paint. What does gravity do to paint? Or you may have a room full of cartoons. How do cartoons work with paint? You’re exploring these rooms, playing with the brief in each one.

I like to get back to that childlike state of not knowing. Take wine bottles. Forget everything you think you know about them and go back to the beginning. Why are they 750ml? Because that’s the lung capacity of a French glassblower. That’s how it became the prototype of a wine bottle. Soon that develops into a stereotype for a particular region like Bordeaux – a branded object. Later it becomes the archetype – a symbol in your head that stands for wine in general. Prototype, stereotype, archetype – trace it back and you get somewhere interesting.

111 A Lean Year
Alt Group’s Christmas mailer, 2009, following the financial crash

The Lean Year wine bottle (above) came from thinking about wine as an idea – a vertical product with a horizontal effect. What happens if you apply the effect to the bottle itself? The title only came later, at the end of a tough year.

The key question is never what the idea is, but what the idea has to do. With Auckland Art Gallery, we had this amazing collection of visual art in one place, but nobody wanted to come. So what do you need the idea to do? It has to make art a habit, part of people’s daily lives. A logo isn’t going to do that. You need more points of contact. You need to get people thinking about what art is or can be.

So we set up this algorithm – a rule system where the phrase must always begin with an ‘A’, followed by two words that have an ‘R’ and ‘T’ stacked consecutively. The result is a game in which people can participate. The rules create the game.

253 Auckland Gallery
Auckland Art Gallery identity – bringing life to art and art to life. Alt Group, New Zealand, 2011

We only ever present one idea. The challenge is getting the client to the point where they want to accept it. I compare it to being in a dark room. At the start of the project, the client takes you in and shines a torch at the problem. You send them away, bump around the room for a couple of weeks and eventually find the idea in a corner somewhere.

Now it’s tempting to run outside waving the idea in the air, but that isn’t going to work. You need to take the client back into the room, show them where you were, explain the journey you took, the alternatives you considered and rejected. By the time you get to the idea, it should feel inevitable.

Looking at design and branding now, there’s a lot of what I call The Attack of the Friendlies. Brands that look relaxed and friendly, but aren’t really. Every bank wants to be your friend. But why? If anything, a bank should be a group of burly guys in suits standing outside steel doors. If you were being witty, you might play with that. But it’s all about being friendly now. Like parental entertainment. Keep the kids happy.

Cover of This Over That. A story told through a repeated device of one word appearing over another. From ‘stay over night’ to ‘so over it’ (shown top). Alt Group, New Zealand, 2011
Cover of This Over That. A story told through a repeated device of one word appearing over
another. From ‘stay over night’ to ‘so over it’ (shown top). Alt Group, New Zealand, 2011

I trained as a sculptor and artist before I got into design. Most of our teaching was about finding frameworks for thinking, as well as developing the craft skills to achieve that thinking. I’m fascinated by objects – the different ways of looking at a bottle or a broom. Words are objects too. Think about the letter ‘A’. An ‘H’ designed by an architect. I followed this thought and it turned into a book called Twenty Six Characters.

I enjoy these explorations – This Over That (shown above and top of post) is another example. Take a simple structure of one word over another and see if you can tell an entire story with it. The limitation is liberating.

I have a strong idea about the type of design I want to make. I’m not saying I force it on clients, but I want to make work that has both wit and generosity. Generosity in the sense that it invites you in and makes you a participant. I don’t like branding that creates distance and exclusivity. I like ideas that welcome you with open arms.

Dean Poole is co-founder and creative director of Alt Group. This essay is taken from the new, revised edition of A Smile in the Mind: Witty thinking in graphic design, by Beryl McAlhone, David Stuart, Greg Quinton and Nick Asbury, and is republished with permission. The book is published by Phaidon (£24.95) and is available now. All images taken from A Smile in the Mind.

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