How to have great ideas

Do you find yourself struggling to come up with new ideas? Then these five tips from John Ingledew, extracted from his new book How To Have Great Ideas: A Guide to Creative Thinking, may provide some inspiration….

Ingledew’s book contains 53 strategies and projects that aim to help readers unlock their ideas. Here’s his pick of five to get you started.

Tip one: Be a Storyteller

Great stories take an audience on an exciting journey through a series of ideas that have been successfully interlinked. One-line jokes, 30-second TV ads, two-minute comedy sketches, three-minute pop songs and music videos, as well as graphic novels, plays, ballets, operas, movies, cartoons, graphic novels and video games, all rely on successful storytelling.

Book design, exhibition design, web design and magazine design at their best also engage by possessing an enveloping narrative. Photographers, too, strive to tell a story – in their case, in a single image in which all the parts are related. In fact, they even refer to this perfect intersection of the pieces as ‘the storytelling moment’.

A story needs to grab an audience, ambush their imaginations and transport them to another place; the finest do this through immersing the reader, listener, viewer or, in the case of video games, the player, in the unique worldview of the teller by employing a highly distinctive voice or vision.

Great stories feel highly personal – the ideas they contain speak to you by engaging your thoughts or emotions, through recognition or through empathy. Film director Danny Boyle has described this phenomenon as ‘a perfect vacuum’, where there is ‘nothing between you and the story’.

The Storyboard Game Stories, created by playing the Storyboard Game, in which participants take turns to begin, evolve and complete stories
The Storyboard Game Stories, created by playing the Storyboard Game, in which participants take turns to begin, evolve and complete stories

Tip two: Be playful

To a child, a simple cardboard box has unlimited possibilities – as a car, plane, house, fort, post box, boat, skyscraper, spaceship, robot costume, etc. A stick or piece of wood is a Star Wars lightsaber, a knight’s sword or a baseball bat. By being playful with any objects, words or materials you are presented with, you can reveal lots of different ideas and alternatives.

Rediscover playtime – that period at school when the clock always seemed to run at a different speed. You can become lost in play. It is joyful and carefree; the ordinary rules of daily life are temporarily suspended and the form and scale of objects are overthrown and happily ignored. Designer Ron Arad describes his London studio as ‘a progressive playground’. Though often seen as anarchic or chaotic, the playground is in fact the most creative place in every school. Existing configurations of walls, railings, fences and posts are constantly repurposed to invent games and found objects utilised as tools and play equipment. It is in playgrounds that young people display so many of the skills that are highly prized in creative adults – spontaneity, improvisation, ingenuity, verbal dexterity, invention, enthusiasm, collaboration and teamwork.

Some creative companies and experimental education programmes have learnt a lot from this. They have sidelined computers and instead built work environments with plenty of access to construction and modelling materials so that ideas can swiftly become objects. They set out to create a environment of shared space, and the liberated feeling of playtime in which your role as a participant is simply to mess around freely with a project and toy with ideas.

For this to be successful you need to be in a playful state of mind and feel that others are valued playmates rather than colleagues.

The Bauhaus teacher Josef Albers believed that the hands-on gathering of experience though play with materials led to invention and was key training for all types of design work. Bearing this in mind, treat challenges as play rather than work. Put your game face on.

During playtime, found objects can take on any role. Here sticks become knights’ swords.
During playtime, found objects can take on any role. Here sticks become knights’ swords.

Tip three: Change the room

A handful of remarkable buildings – including Bell Laboratories (Bell Labs), the Bauhaus, Lockheed’s Skunk Works and the Brill Building – have been the birthplace of more innovative ideas per square metre than acres and acres of other workplaces put together.

In America their fame is such that Bell Labs has become a byword for scientific innovation and creativity, while ‘The Skunk Works’ has become a nickname for any highly creative group within an organisation. The world’s most creative addresses offer a set of blueprints for configuring and organising places to make them particularly conducive to new ideas.

Establishing how people act as individuals and together is more important than anything else. A set of house rules – an expectation of outlook and behaviour once the threshold has been crossed – can act as a very powerful creative catalyst. At Bell Labs, staff were given free rein to work on any problem that interested them. The only requirement was to keep an open door, so if anyone from another department came with a problem they would help to think about it. Bell Labs has been described as ‘the ideas factory’ and ‘a legendary playpen’. Permission should be granted to make a mess, make mistakes and break rules. The house rules of ad agency BBH in London are signalled by the life-size sculpture of a black sheep at the entrance, indicating that this is a place for out-of-the-ordinary and disreputable thinking.

Maximise interaction: spaces should be designed to allow knowledge to be shared freely, and to ensure exposure to the ideas of others is unavoidable. In the Brill Building, teams of young songwriters worked in adjoining rooms. Paper-thin walls meant each could hear how the others were progressing, allowing ideas to permeate.

Grant ownership: a shared happy memory of art students of earlier generations was that they were allowed keys to their college studios to work undisturbed whenever they wanted – overnight or through weekends or holidays. Giving ownership of an establishment’s space frees individuals mentally and physically to pursue and evolve their ideas far beyond nine-to-five constraints.

Go reconfigure: ideas environments should be the visual embodiment of creativity. They should offer maximum flexibility rather than permanence – spaces that can be reconfigured swiftly for different activities, offering opportunities to continually surprise. One designer who worked for Charles and Ray Eames described that entering their studios in California ‘was like walking into a circus. If you could take the roof off you would see it constantly changing.’

Get a ringleader: ‘Every place needs a fireball or sparkplug’ said one former Skunk worker; theirs was legendary creative leader Clarence ‘Kelly’ Johnson. A ringleader must be respected, believed in and seen as representing the collective good. The best have the ability to encourage and energise without dominating – their role is to move things on, to influence by drawing ideas together, be the play-maker, keeping the competition going, and help to draw conclusions.

An ingenious see-through room within a room at the London Design Festival, created with just coloured string by B&O.
An ingenious see-through room within a room at the London Design Festival, created with just coloured string by B&O.

Tip four: Take notice

Get the habit of curiosity, and then you will find ideas will catch your eye. Always be on the lookout for interesting things.

‘Creative people are expert noticers’ observed scientist Professor Guy Claxton. They have highly developed abilities in visual foraging – spotting, gathering and utilising things that most others overlook. Having an active, rather than idle, curiosity about the world around you reveals ideas. Be nosey, be eyesy.

Begin by looking for the visual treasure that your surroundings throw up. When chance new relationships are formed between things, juxtapositions that would be impossible to invent often occur. Look for the things that frustrate, and things that don’t work. Look for ways in which the urban and rural environment is used in ways it was not designed for – these are often highly ingenious.

To see things afresh, try taking a different route to somewhere you often go, or travel by a different means; break your usual pattern, go slower, go faster – you will see things differently. Collect and record what you discover with a cameraphone, camera or a notebook.

Noticing opportunity. Observation can reveal opportunity – ‘Looks like cyclists can’t find waterproof saddles! Hey, I could invent one.’
Noticing opportunity. Observation can reveal opportunity – ‘Looks like cyclists can’t find waterproof saddles! Hey, I could invent one.’

Tip five: Take things literally

We are so used to using words and phrases in familiar ways that we overlook many that can gift us ideas.

For example, you could make a bulldog out of bulldog clips, a chicken out of chicken wire, make a hand rail or an armchair, knit a tank top with tanks on, or paint picture postcard and chocolate box pictures. Designer Daniel Eatock once made a passport photo of a passport, whilst the artist Dick Jewell has taken mugshots of mugs (see top image).

Lulu Guinness, Birdcage umbrella. Discovering that the structure of this style of umbrella is known by manufacturers as a birdcage led iconic handbag designer Lulu Guinness to the idea for this bestselling design.
Lulu Guinness, Birdcage umbrella. Discovering that the structure of this style of umbrella is known by manufacturers as a birdcage led iconic handbag designer Lulu Guinness to the idea for this bestselling design.

This is an extract from How To Have Great Ideas: A Guide to Creative Thinking by John Ingledew, which is published by Laurence King, priced £17.95. More info is at laurenceking.com

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