More than once, in my creative career, someone has said something like, “I don’t see how you come up with ideas all the time.” For me it seems pretty natural – it’s my job – like some people might rebuild an engine. But it made me think a little deeper. We’re all familiar with the trope of starting with a “blank canvas.” But the more I thought about it, the more the Blank Canvas Theory felt wrong to me.
When I start a project, and full disclosure, I work in graphic design not the fine arts, I feel more like there is an infinite number of solutions. It’s my job to figure out which is the best given the parameters of the project at hand. I have at my resources my knowledge of art and design history, pop culture, the local zeitgeist and all my personal and professional experience. Mind you, I’m talking about in my head, not Google. I start to see some possibilities and work my way down to a manageable number. Then there’s a further reductive and refining process from there. But it all comes from something, not nothing.
“Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” – Michelangelo
I think Michelangelo must have understood this as well. And Aaron Draplin posted this great process video a little while ago. You can see as he ideates that he’s not constructing something from nothing – he’s drawing on his knowledge and experience. He then edits down to the best solution for his project. Sometimes I feel more like a design detective. Really, it’s a far less daunting way to work.
My college deconstructionist lit professor called this “intertextuality” – using one text to help read another text. And because “text” can refer to just about anything – paintings, movies, and yes, even words – you can draw ideas and associations from anything. Maria Popova calls it combinatorial creativity, and it’s the entire basis for her website Brain Pickings.
The core ethos behind Brain Pickings is that creativity is a combinatorial force: it’s our ability to tap into our mental pool of resources — knowledge, insight, information, inspiration, and all the fragments populating our minds — that we’ve accumulated over the years just by being present and alive and awake to the world, and to combine them in extraordinary new ways. In order for us to truly create and contribute to the world, we have to be able to connect countless dots, to cross-pollinate ideas from a wealth of disciplines, to combine and recombine these pieces and build new ideas.
I think of it as LEGOs — if the bricks we have are of only one shape, size, and color, we can build things, but there’s a limit to how imaginative and interesting they will be. The richer and more diverse that pool of resources, that mental library of building blocks, the more visionary and compelling our combinatorial ideas can be.
She says it better than I did. So, listening to Star Talk Radio or watching Portlandia can be just as important as reading Graphis.
I’m guessing this is all a familiar concept if you’re in a creative field, but everyone’s brain works a bit differently. And I think the process tends to feel a bit more shady and mysterious to those who aren’t in a creative field. Am I right in this?