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For newcomers, one of the great mysteries of design is how ideas get created in the first place.

A lot of the time we see beautiful end results in people’s portfolios, looking all polished and shiny. Although portfolios do occasionally gives some insight into process as well, what professional designers usually don’t like showing us are the messy early stages. But the truth is that amazing ideas usually evolve from pretty unpromising, or even downright ugly early sketches.

Once you start leafing through a designer's sketchbook, it becomes clear why we often say that design is not art. To be an amazing designer, you don’t have to be great at drawing. It might even help if you’re not great at drawing, because you won't be held back by worrying about making your sketches beautiful.

But what is important is your ability to quickly generate ideas. So, how do designers do it? Read on for 9 key tips!

1. Learn the importance of idea generation

Personally speaking, the importance of idea generation has been a key lesson for me as I’ve learned design over the past couple of years. Due to a misspent youth programming BBC Micros (aka Acorns), and becoming dubiously competent in other forms of coding, I’m pretty comfortable using computers and learning software, and can usually execute stuff quickly.

But what I’ve had to learn recently is that those skills are pretty useless if you don’t have a strong idea to take to the computer. As a rule, software is for executing an idea, not for coming up with one.

So I’ve had to become more disciplined in making myself develop ideas away from the computer. The key for me is to try and push beyond my comfort zone before attempting to digitise any ideas.

If you, too, find yourself stuck with a blank piece of paper and a half-chewn pencil, how can you start creating concepts? The good news is that you don’t have to be a creative "genius". You just have to use methods that activate your innate human creativity.

2. Start with a brief

One way of looking at the difference between art and design is that art is primarily about self-expression, while design is primarily about problem-solving.

A designer’s job is to take a problem and look for possible solutions. The problem could be primarily visual or primarily functional, but a designer’s work must still begin with a statement of that problem. You don’t need inspiration to be a successful designer – but you do need to be an effective problem solver.

What designers usually refer to as a “brief” is essentially a description of the problem they've been asked to solve. Often a brief comes from a client, but there’s nothing to stop you creating them for yourself.

Here are some of the key elements of a good design brief:

  • Information about the client and background to the project
  • A statement of the problem to be solved (e.g. publicity for a jazz festival that will attract a new audience)
  • Key facts about the demographic (e.g. the festival’s publicity will be aimed at city residents ages 21-30)
  • Deliverables (e.g. “A2 poster as PDF file”)
  • Special requests from the client (e.g. the poster needs to look clean and modern with no old-fashioned typefaces)
  • Deadline

See also: How to write the perfect design brief (Design Week)

3. Embrace the deadline

We’re all supposed to despise deadlines, but they are one of the most useful forms of motivation out there. If you have a really binding deadline for an event, you have no choice but to get in the zone and rapidly generate ideas. Be clear about the time you have available, and write out a plan for how you will spend that time, and allocate as much of it as possible to idea generation methods.

4. Sketch on paper, not on the computer

As Aaron Draplin says, your hand is much more free when working on paper than when controlling a mouse. On that basis alone, you should generate your ideas on paper. Create thumbnails of your ideas, and push each idea as far as you can within the time available.

See also: Aaron Draplin takes on a logo design challenge

5. Explore problems using words as well as visuals

Word association can help take initially dull or clichéd ideas somewhere more interesting. Here’s one method:

  • First, come up with a few keywords derived from your brief. For example, thinking about that jazz festival, we might think of rhythm, joy, and speed.
  • Next, pick one of those keywords and write down as many related words as you can. Keep going for as long as possible – it doesn’t matter if you repeat yourself. For example, rhythm might lead us to beat, percussion, repetition, sound, noise, movement, dance, etc.
  • Finally, try to draw each of those words with just a few strokes of your pen or pencil. Each drawing should only take a few seconds – remember, we’re not trying to create works of art. Ideally, try to draw each word several times in different ways.

This method rapidly creates a lot of potential visual directions for your project. Identify the most promising words from your brainstorming, and keep repeating the process.

6. Other techniques to get unstuck

If you’re struggling to come up with ideas, try these methods:

  • SCAMPER – take an idea and transform it over and over again using the principles of substitute, combine, adapt, modify, put to another use, eliminate, reverse. Check out Designorate’s guide to the SCAMPER technique.
  • Draw 100 thumbnail boxes (or, probably easier, print them) and don’t stop until you’ve filled them all. Even more challenging – fill the 100 boxes with visual interpretations of just one idea! (You can download our PDF template at the end of this article.)
  • Write about the problem. When ideas aren’t coming visually, they might be more easily described in words. Write a couple of paragraphs explaining your current understanding of the problem and how it might be solved.

7. Talk ideas through with other people

Faced with the same problem, no two people will understand it identically, and they’re likely to have very different intutions about how to solve it. Get other people’s feedback early and often during your ideation process. Listen to their ideas and critique, note and act on the best of it, and ignore the parts that don’t help you move the work forward.

See also: Designlab's guide to giving and receiving design critique well

8. #nofilter: ideate individually, critique as a group

The most destructive instinct when trying to come up with ideas is to filter out the ones that you think are “no good” before you’ve even drawn them. It might be true that the idea’s no good, but it’s still important to get it out. Once a bad idea is down on paper, you can at least forget about it and move on.

But there’s also a chance that the idea’s not as bad as you imagined, or – more importantly – that your bad idea might lead you to a good one. One of the reasons that group idea generation often fails is that people feel pressure not to voice “bad” ideas. If your work is in a group setting, encourage individual ideation followed up by group critique.

See also: 16 Designers show us their favorite notebooks (FastCo)

9. Change your constraints

If you’re always using the same familiar pen and paper, all your ideas are going to be pretty similar, at least visually. Try using a thicker pen, a thinner pen, a pencil, charcoal, a brush, different colours. Try cutting your idea out of cardboard or spare polystyrene. Make a collage. Use a whiteboard. Draw upside down. Every time you switch your constraints, you inevitably produce different and unexpected results.

See also: John Ingledew’s book How To Have Great Ideas

Time to get creative!

Thanks for reading! We hope this post has helped to demystify how designers come up with their ideas, and also given you some helpful tips for how to develop your own. 

Why not download our free printable thumbnail PDF and get creating today?

Your free idea generation template

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