Following the idea

Post #4: Mark muses on creative serendipity


Someone once told me I have a ‘flypaper brain’ – lots of little bits of information stick to the grey cells, and these fuel the lateral leaps of imagination, the tenuous connections, the incongruous juxtapositions that lead to interesting design concepts.

But fuel is the right word – because on their own these little bits of information don’t generate good design. The starting point has to be the idea itself, and this comes from understanding the objective of the piece, what response you’re trying to get from your audience, what you want them to understand, what you want them to take away from it. If the concept for a project is thought through clearly and thoroughly at the start, the look and feel of the end product will flow naturally from it.

It was something drummed into me at art school – and I’m glad it was, because it stopped us relying on stylistic tricks or the latest fashions to hoodwink the audience into thinking we’d done something clever. Style and beauty are of course essential for successful work but, if that’s all there is, the result will lack meaning.

Good design is inherently collaborative, with the client, with your own team – and particularly the writer. The verbal and visual elements of a project need to work together to create a coherent whole and to my mind, this is when the most exciting concept generation takes place. Brainstorming sessions involving both the writer and the designer produce ideas that neither would create on their own – it’s what advertising creatives refer to as ‘having the third person in the room’.

Following the idea can (and maybe should) lead you to try things you’ve not done before. Last year I worked with writer Charlotte Brookes on the 26 Lies project, which gave each creative pair a ‘lie’ to illustrate in some way through a story. We got the Bosnian proverb: ‘Those who lie for you will lie against you’. Charlotte wrote a searingly bleak and beautiful poem on this theme and suggested it would work best as a performed piece rather than on paper. Because of her idea, I ended up directing a short film for the first time. The simplicity, clarity and power of her words dictated the spare, direct approach of the film.

We don’t usually get such latitude with an annual report brief, of course – because the constraints of regulation, content, process, production and so on mean that there’s a limit to how ‘creative’ one can be. But this itself illustrates another of the core principles underpinning our approach. Design is fundamentally about getting the job done. This means that a concept – verbal and visual – has to communicate effectively AND has to be appropriate to the project’s timescale and budget. The great American designer Paul Rand summed this up particularly well: “Design is both a verb and a noun, it is the process and product of imagination.”

In other words, design is creativity with purpose.

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