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Complete Ideation – The Parable of the Marble

So I spend a lot of time scouring the internet for creative exploits that tickle my fancy. And while I have indulged myself in plenty to keep me more than adequately sated, I have also had the misfortune of afflicting my palette with some horrible attempts at design, and boy the aftertaste thereof still makes me shudder. Whenever I find myself confronted with a creative version of food poison I am left to lament the perceived difficulty of this design thing. But it’s not that it’s difficult. Often times it’s because many would-be creatives follow the shortcuts they were taught but have never really had the real path with the full creative process shown to them. So today we’re looking at the out-then-in method of ideation. But to make it more fun we’ll use marbles. So open that jar! It’s CRUNCHTIME!

il_570xN.598206102_6hi6So I want us to liken our minds to a jar of marbles. Now let us also pretend that collection of marbles represents the smorgasbord of ideas that we creatives are blessed with. A normal jar of marbles worth its weight in salt usually has an assortment marbles of different colours and patterns. So let’s pretend the best idea that you need to solve your client’s problem or to help achieve is a specific marble, lets say a blue-green marble with a stripe. The easy way would be to just reach in and hope the dice falls on 7 or 11 and you miraculously pull out the exact marble you needed. Sadly stuff like that only happens in anime and life doesn’t often provide us with deus ex machina moments. What usually happens is that, in the best case scenario, you get something that somewhat looks closest to the marble you want. Close as it may be all you tend to achieve is a level of acceptable failure. Of course oftentimes the client is accepting of your concession, he might even be impressed, but a concession it is nonetheless. So what is to be done?

Step One: Empty out all the marbles in the jar

img_1320If you have a jar of marbles, and you want a particular one, you simply get a tray and pour out all the marbles in the jar. So how do we pour out the marbles? There is a way that we can empty our jars as we  cycle through our many ideas. That is the gloriously painstaking process of mind-mapping. While it’s often considered a forgotten art by many a creative the results it produces cannot be denied. When you mind map you write down everything that comes to your mind when you think of a given company, product or service and link similar or related thoughts together. Take note of how many points you jot down. You know how well you know any subject matter based on how many points you can jot down. Generally I encourage my students to keep going until they reach at least 25. So if you struggle to get there it means you don’t know enough about your subject matter and you need to do some more research. After mind-mapping the natural step is to do word association sketches. Think of it as visual mind-mapping. You’re really sketching everything that comes to your mind when you think of a given company, product or service. So after these two processes you can be confident that you have extensively emptied out your jar of marbles on the tray.

Step Two: Put back the pointless marbles

il_340x270.1007582161_nlntBecause you’re looking for a blue-green marble with a stripe it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to tell you that you don’t need to keep the yellow, red and purple marbles. So it is with ideation. Not every idea on the mind map is relevant. By it’s very nature, where thoughts are derived from other thoughts, some thoughts would be an idea from an idea from an idea. Usually anything in the third ring of your mind map is the result of scraping up the dregs at the bottom of the barrel and tend to be far removed from the original objective. So disregard the useless, pointless and meaningless aspects of your mind map and sketches. You need no cancel it, just use the more relevant stuff

Step Three: Identify the options closest to the desired marble and put back the rest

c9d183eca1e99d67d125cce139b6ca91By this time you should find yourself zeroing in on your solution. After your initial elimination you should have been left with at least the blue-green marbles. At this point you can mainly focus on just the ones with a stripe. This is usually done by coming up with combinations of the “workable” ideas that you chose to focus on. You combine symbols, shapes, colours, pictures and typography in various permutations in a “parable of the sower” quest of trial and error to find the best solution. It can get annoying, because it is trial and error after all, but trial is important for any success to be possible. Also as you build from one thought to another you will notice your ideas getting refined with every iteration. Colour combinations will improve. Compositions of elements will also improve. On and on it will go until you find the option that best communicates what is needed to be communicated.

Step Four: Choose your marble and polish it

life-through-a-marble-9If you’re like me you sketch in black and white and imagine the colours. So out of those ideas you come up with during your iterative process there will be one, or three, that will strike you. At the very least you will be confident that it will strike your client, or your client’s client. At this stage you just want to polish up your concept. You will maybe get your colours right. You might also decide the exact angle of that diagonal line. You may also decide that the curve you drew should be formed from a circle instead of just a random arc. This last stage is what separates the Apples and Twitters from the also-rans of this world. That highly technical and refined designed is what you present to the client.

I know at times when you find yourself staring at the blank screen or blank page in front of you it may feel like you’re losing your marbles. Not so. Designers never lose their marbles, they only misplace them. And when they can’t find their marbles they are forced to settle for the next best marble. That shouldn’t be so either. Maybe we settle because we think that the best marble, the one we really want, doesn’t exist. But rest assured, it exists, and you will find it as long as you are willing to search deep enough in your jar to find it. This has been CRUNCHTIME. See y’all next time.