From the archive: Gai-deas and the art of creativity

Here's another in a series of old pieces in a recent clear-out of that seem worthy of another look. This is an entertaining rant from 2004 about ideas not coming from expected places...

We’re all supposed to be creative, aren’t we? So it’s odd then that truly great ideas remain so elusive.

No wonder the late, great Tibor Kalman once said he never liked to do any one type of project more than 3 times. The first time you design something, you have no fear, you’re a virgin-problem-solver and with a bit of luck and blind inhibition you’ll wing it. The second time it gets better, then the third – maybe that’s the best. But from there, it’s all downhill. You know too much. You repeat yourself. It’s over.

Walk into many design studios and most people are doing, not creating. Forget Tibor’s rule, they’re on their ninth website, not their third. One of my designers complained to me that she’d spent half the morning on the phone. ‘Welcome to my world’ I thought. We become designers to be designers, but those elusive sparks come at other times; on trains, or in the shower, or limping round the local park.

When was the last time you had a genuinely ‘cor blimey’, hairs-up-on-the-back-of-your-neck idea, at your desk, at 10.30 on a Wednesday morning? Thought not.

For me having ideas is about being in the right state of mind, the right music and an oddly irrational battle with the rational. Personally I see the world that we (and our clients) inhabit as two places. ‘Inside’ are all the things that are rational and familiar, but outside is another world, a world of unknown ideas, yet to be had, yet to be understood and, probably most critically, yet to be sold.

I’m writing this on the way back from Japan and I’m reminded of their infamous word, Gaikoko-jin, which translates literally as ‘outside world – from’. Foreigners are from the land of outside – a word that sometimes seems derogatory but personally I quite like. Because I think that as designers we are searching for ideas that are Gaikoko-ideas (let’s call them Gai-deas, for short), outside our frame of reference, unknown, unreferenced.

Searching for and selling Gai-deas brings with it a whole host of problems, namely, and pardon the capitals, HOW THE HELL IS A CLIENT GOING TO BUY THAT. I guess that’s when we fall back on logic, or what I call ‘boardroom rationale’ - post-rationalisation for be-suited bottoms parked on the Eames chairs but completely lost on real people. No wonder ‘branding’ continues to build its own self-supporting babel-bubble of language, just to try and get a few more ideas through.

Take all those ‘transparent’ brand values lost on Joe Public. Joe hasn’t got a graphics degree, he sees ‘soft’ and ‘change’ for Tate (perhaps) and possibly just saw ‘soft’ for Abbey (a short-lived rebrand of the UK Building Society).

When he sees the recent version of the UPS symbol he doesn’t analyse the implications of the change from the Paul Rand original to now, or appreciate the new-found solidity of their three dimensional marque, he just sees a slightly dodgy 3-d logo.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not really belittling these ideas, I actually think that Tate was a brave, ‘Gai’ kind of idea.

But Gai-deas can get you into trouble. Those fruit and veg stamps of ours were popular, sure, but we suffered in the letters pages of the design journals about whether they were gong-worthy.

The design world is perilously short of true paradigm shifts, and in that perforated, phosphor coated bubble that is philately they sure look different to me. But the pack-men get beaten up over crisps and squidgy biscuits, we take a hammering on sticky back paper, the suits demand results and by inference creativity takes a bit of a dive.

Sometimes Gai-deas come from completely backwards thinking. I sometimes start with the absolutely most inappropriate place for an idea and ask myself ‘why not?’ Or I start with the cliché and literally, in some cases, reverse it. We’re doing a city identity at present* which takes a skyline and turns it into something completely different. If you’d asked me at the beginning of the project if I thought I was planning a skyline identity, I would have spluttered my sweeteners back into my latté.

Call it what you like, but backwards thinking, Gai-deas sometimes invoke the worst possible reaction – ridicule. People can’t judge them, they laugh, they get angry, they reject. They choose a safe route. And more ideas go into the bottom drawer.

Just like everyone else, our bottom drawer is crammed with ideas that didn’t go through, or we couldn’t sell, or just seemed ahead of their time. Sometimes I think it would be great to have a spring clean of all those ideas, and in a stroke of ridiculous-ness we even published our own brochure of unsold ideas in a catalogue once. But the truth is, I held a few back because I still thought some solutions would eventually meet the right problem, as though their meeting was somehow pre-ordained. Sometimes I’ve held a solution in my head for 15 years, waiting for its perfect problem.

As yet no-one’s responded to the sale of unsold ideas with an urgent phone call and the offer of ‘50 grand for the idea on page 8’. Maybe they’ll wait 15 years to call?

This article by Michael Johnson was originally published in 2004.

*It was the Think London identity as shown

Follow johnson banks on twitter @johnsonbanks, on Facebook or sign-up for our newsletter here

Share: Facebook / Twitter / Pinterest