HOW TO GEN­ER­ATE IDEAS

Nick Car­son chats to D&AD Fes­ti­val 2019 speak­ers about keep­ing the in­tegrity of your ideas through­out the de­sign process

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D&AD Fes­ti­val 2019 speak­ers give their ad­vice on how to find, nur­ture and sell strong ideas through­out the cre­ative de­sign process

Strong ideas are the bedrock of the cre­ative in­dus­tries. They keep the work fresh, but also help en­gage au­di­ences who are over­whelmed and fa­tigued by the re­lent­less noise com­ing from brands. Strip away the craft, and if there isn’t a com­pelling thought be­neath there’s a risk that even the most beau­ti­ful piece of de­sign risks be­com­ing lit­tle more than dec­o­ra­tion.

“Ideas are what en­gage and de­light an au­di­ence,” con­firms Jim Suther­land, multi-award­win­ning founder of Stu­dio Sutherl&, who de­liv­ered a play­ful work­shop at D&AD Fes­ti­val 2019 on how to cul­ti­vate ideas. “Be­ing able to sum up an idea in a few words is a good way to know you have a strong and sim­ple solution,” he adds. “You should be able to tell some­one your idea over the phone.”

“Ideas come first, al­ways,” agrees Matt Bax­ter, co-founder of Brighton-based de­sign stu­dio Bax­ter & Bai­ley who, along with copy­writer Kate van der Borgh, ex­plored how D&AD Fes­ti­val at­ten­dees can best ‘beat the bull­shit’ and en­sure that ideas are ex­pressed clearly and sim­ply.

De­sign is about think­ing, solv­ing prob­lems and in­no­vat­ing, as­serts Bax­ter. And in or­der to have max­i­mum im­pact, you need peo­ple to un­der­stand your ideas as eas­ily as pos­si­ble in or­der to get ex­cited by them.

“Ideas res­onate,” Bax­ter ex­plains. “They can make peo­ple change the way they think, be­have, act. Great ideas change cul­ture, in­flu­ence pol­i­tics, shape the world. What that think­ing looks like is se­condary, but also vi­tally im­por­tant – the craft or ex­e­cu­tion of those ideas can in­crease that res­o­nance mas­sively.”

Rosie Arnold gave a re­veal­ing ses­sion about avoid­ing medi­ocrity and push­ing for the best work pos­si­ble. “Ideas have the power to change the

way peo­ple think,” be­lieves the vet­eran cre­ative di­rec­tor, who af­ter more than three decades at BBH, fol­lowed by a stint at AMV BBDO, is now an in­de­pen­dent con­sul­tant.

A firm be­liever in de­sign’s so­cial im­pact po­ten­tial, Arnold was in­stru­men­tal in in­tro­duc­ing the White Pencil Award while D&AD pres­i­dent from 2011-12. “Whether you’re cre­at­ing a brand, chang­ing opin­ion or chang­ing the world, with­out that great idea you can’t do any­thing,” she says.

“I think if you don’t have a great idea to start with, then it’ll never be great,” adds Su­san Hoff­man, chief cre­ative of­fi­cer at Wieden+Kennedy, whose packed-out talk at D&AD Fes­ti­val cham­pi­oned the power of in­di­vid­u­al­ity when it comes to gen­er­at­ing com­pelling ideas. “The only ar­gu­ment is: ‘Does it emo­tion­ally get you?’ En­ter­tain­ment can do that, long copy can do that, a song can do that. Many things can,” she con­tin­ues.

As a fiercely in­de­pen­dent agency that beats its own drum away from the big net­works, Wieden+Kennedy prides it­self on be­ing won­der­fully off-kil­ter both in its cul­ture and its work – and the agency has made weird­ness work for brands as di­verse as Old Spice, KFC and its found­ing client, Nike.

“But it’s get­ting harder for us to be weird,” ad­mits Hoff­man. “You need a bal­ance of right and left: if you don’t you’re in trou­ble. We use phrases like ‘the right kind of cra­zies’ and ‘ship of fools’ to de­scribe the agency, to re­mind our­selves not to be too se­ri­ous, have fun, and be hu­man.”

For Hoff­man, it all boils down to find­ing a rel­e­vant ‘truth’ about the brand in ques­tion to build from. Fabri­cate some­thing just to fit a brief and you’re build­ing a cam­paign on quick­sand in an age where con­sumers are de­mand­ing sub­stance and au­then­tic­ity.

“We re­ally shouldn’t get out of the start­ing gates un­til we know that truth. I’m not say­ing it’s easy to find, or to ex­e­cute, but if you bank on truth you stand a bet­ter chance of pulling it off, and you know that it’s right,” says Hoff­man. “It’s al­ways there, you just have to dig hard to find it.”

WHERE TO FIND A GREAT IDEA

Find­ing a killer idea is cer­tainly no mean feat, and it of­ten takes an open mind to spot po­ten­tial and bring it to the sur­face. Suther­land’s cre­ative process in­volves hun­dreds of scrib­bled ideas: “It’s about ex­per­i­ment­ing and test­ing out all sorts of ap­proaches,” he ex­plains. “I con­stantly add new thoughts and ideas in note­books, on scraps of pa­per and so on.”

In or­der to whittle all these rough start­ing points down into ideas that have legs, the next step is to talk them all through and de­ter­mine which have the most po­ten­tial to “grow and flex”, as Suther­land puts it.

“Best-seller ideas tend to stand out un­der scru­tiny,” he ex­plains. “Keep look­ing, talk­ing and re­flect­ing. You should work hard, but it shouldn’t be hard work – it should be good fun. It’s like a pig

“BEST-SELLER IDEAS TEND TO STAND OUT UN­DER SCRU­TINY” JIM SUTHER­LAND FOUNDER, STU­DIO SUTHERL&

snuf­fling for truf­fles, if you en­joy the process and you un­earth the re­ward.”

“Bril­liant ideas are tena­cious. They hang around and refuse to be squished down,” agrees Bax­ter. “When you spot a great idea lurk­ing amongst the doo­dles in a note­book or sketch­pad, you gen­er­ally feel that ini­tial lurch of ex­cite­ment. You may well move on to other ideas through your de­sign process, but you re­turn to the good ones – or they re­turn to you.”

Hoff­man gives the ex­am­ple of W+K’s lon­grun­ning Olympics cam­paign for P&G, not on the face of it an easy brand to link with sport­ing achievemen­t. The solution was beau­ti­fully sim­ple: be­hind ev­ery world-class ath­lete is a mum who be­lieves in them, and has brought them up for great­ness. “It was the most rel­e­vant, au­then­tic an­gle,” she says.

With the tagline ‘For teach­ing us that fall­ing only makes us stronger’, the ini­tial cam­paign for the Sochi 2014 Win­ter Olympics tracked sev­eral ath­letes’ jour­neys from early child­hood to Olympic glory, their mums al­ways there to pick them up when­ever they fall. P&G, in turn, was the ‘Proud spon­sor of mums’. All of a sud­den FMCG prod­ucts such as nap­pies, de­ter­gent and sham­poo – the ev­ery­day in­gre­di­ents of grow­ing up – were seam­lessly woven into a gen­uinely up­lift­ing nar­ra­tive con­cern­ing sport.

Sub­se­quent cam­paigns adapted the con­cept to explore men­tal strength in the face of ad­ver­sity and fear (‘It takes some­one strong to make some­one strong’, Rio 2016) and ac­cep­tance in the face of prej­u­dice and per­sec­u­tive (‘Imag­ine if the world could see what a mum sees’, PyeongChan­g 2018).

In­spi­ra­tion can strike at any time and ac­cord­ing to Arnold, more of­ten than not this will hap­pen when you’re more re­laxed, rather than strain­ing to find a break­through sat at your desk. “Mak­ing a cup of tea is good. Your brain is like a com­puter: when you stop programmin­g it, it car­ries on work­ing,” she be­lieves.

“And don’t go to the in­ter­net for ideas,” urges Arnold. “You’ll get sucked down a rab­bit hole, and be­cause you’re specif­i­cally look­ing for stuff, you’ll end up with tun­nel vi­sion.” She re­veals that her best ideas of­ten come fol­low­ing a trip out of the of­fice – book­shops in par­tic­u­lar.

“I love the pho­tog­ra­phy sec­tion, and es­pe­cially the il­lus­tra­tions in kids’ books. They’re fab­u­lous, very sim­ple. Flick­ing through stuff that might have ab­so­lutely no rel­e­vance to what you were do­ing helps you think out­side the box. It’s a ran­domi­sa­tion idea process, rather than se­lect­ing

“STRIP IT BACK AND THINK: HOW IS THIS IDEA THE BEST IT POS­SI­BLY CAN BE?” ROSIE ARNOLD CON­SUL­TANT

to see some­thing just be­cause you’ve gone into a search en­gine.”

“It’s vi­tal to spend time away from work to in­spire and re­fresh your brain,” agrees Suther­land. “The more amaz­ing vis­ual, ver­bal and au­ral things you feed in, the more in­ter­est­ing work comes out the other end. It’s a very poor ap­proach to think you need to sit in your stu­dio at a com­puter to gen­er­ate ideas. Most ideas come thor­ough con­ver­sa­tion, in­spi­ra­tion and when you’re not ex­pect­ing them.”

HOW TO NUR­TURE A GREAT IDEA

Great ideas need to be nur­tured and pro­tected if they are ever to reach their full po­ten­tial – par­tic­u­larly in the face of pres­sure from the client to mould them in ways that com­pro­mise their in­tegrity, or keep tag­ging on ex­tras that di­lute or dis­tort them.

“It’s easy to put too much ir­rel­e­vant stuff in,” ad­mits Arnold, who com­pares the si­t­u­a­tion to the kids’ game Bucka­roo. “If there’s a lot of stuff in the brief, don’t try to mis­shape it to an­swer ev­ery­thing. Strip it back and think: how is this idea the best it pos­si­bly can be? Some­times you need to per­suade the client that there are a few things they wanted that can drop off, if it solves one thing re­ally well.”

That’s the key, for Arnold: when you’ve found an idea that’s still com­pelling in its very sim­plest form, you must stay faith­ful to that essence through­out the process. “Think, what are the pieces that we do not want to lose? Would we rather walk away from the idea than make it like that? Therein of­ten lies the prob­lem,” she ad­mits.

“Time gets in the way,” she adds. “You’ve been to-ing and fro-ing about an idea for weeks, and sud­denly the dead­line is com­ing up and the idea looks nowhere like it did at first be­cause ev­ery­one’s had their in­put. It’s shifted. And yet you have to make it, even though it’s noth­ing like what you in­tended. Some­times you don’t have the lux­ury of say­ing, ‘No, I don’t want to make it like that,’ although you should.”

Col­lab­o­ra­tion is an in­te­gral part of the cre­ative process, but Arnold be­lieves the best ideas need own­er­ship and sin­gu­lar cre­ative vi­sion, whether from an in­di­vid­ual or a small cre­ative team. “Col­lab­o­ra­tion can make it won­der­ful – work­ing

“THE MES­SAGE IS OF­TEN COM­PLI­CATED, SO IT NEEDS TO BE ABOUT THE IDEA” SU­SAN HOFF­MAN CHIEF CRE­ATIVE OF­FI­CER, WIEDEN+KENNEDY

with the right di­rec­tor, or il­lus­tra­tor for in­stance – but ideas need own­er­ship,” she in­sists.

“You need a be­nign dic­ta­tor to in­spire peo­ple. The minute you frag­ment it, even some­times with two cre­atives, it makes it harder to re­alise,” Arnold con­tin­ues. “The own­er­ship of the idea needs to rest with one per­son. Oth­er­wise there are too many cooks. Sorry, but that’s the way it is. Every­body wants to be cre­ative: you’re not.”

Hoff­man dis­agrees. “I don’t think it works that way any more,” she coun­ters. “In the olden days the idea sat with the copy­writer and art di­rec­tor. Now it sits with a lot more peo­ple. Although you have to make sure it’s not too many, and you have to make sure it’s the right peo­ple.”

Some­times, Hoff­man con­tin­ues, the right idea comes from a to­tally dif­fer­ent place from the orig­i­nal chal­lenge. She gives the ex­am­ple of a brief for Skol beer that came into W+K Sao Paulo, which on the face of it was about rais­ing aware­ness of drink-drink­ing – but the team de­cided to take a dif­fer­ent tack.

“They re­alised that when you get drunk you make bad de­ci­sions, and maybe go home with the wrong peo­ple,” she ex­plains. The re­sult was a strik­ing, psy­che­delic an­i­ma­tion that turns the orig­i­nal con­cept on its head, shift­ing the fo­cus from driv­ing to sex, with the tagline: ‘Drink Right, F*** Right’.

The role of an idea within a project, and the im­pact it has on the out­come, can vary sig­nif­i­cantly based on the dis­ci­pline in ques­tion. For Arnold, ad­ver­tis­ing is the heart­land for ver­bal ideas – com­mu­ni­cat­ing a par­tic­u­lar con­cept by telling a story in the best way pos­si­ble. Brand­ing, on the other hand, is where sim­ple vis­ual ideas cut through the noise.

To il­lus­trate this, she gives the ex­am­ple of McDon­alds’ 2018 D&AD Wood Pencil-win­ning cam­paign ‘Fol­low The Arches’ by Cana­dian agency Cos­sette, which used tightly cropped el­e­ments of the iconic Golden Arches logo to rep­re­sent roads – a beau­ti­fully sim­ple way to give di­rec­tions to the near­est res­tau­rant.

“That’s an ex­am­ple of fan­tas­tic brand­ing: you know ex­actly what that brand is and what it’s say­ing to you, just us­ing parts of the logo,” she en­thuses. “To me, that’s what you’re try­ing to do as a brand: cre­ate an iconic im­age. Ad­ver­tis­ing is more fluid, and the mes­sage is of­ten more com­pli­cated, so it needs to be about the idea.”

WHAT IT TAKES TO SELL A GREAT IDEA

Once you’ve found a suit­ably in­fec­tious, flex­i­ble, durable and sim­ple idea – no mean feat – then pitch­ing it to the client should, the­o­ret­i­cally at least, be the easy bit.

“Great ideas sell them­selves,” in­sists Suther­land. “I don’t ever feel that I’m ’sell­ing’ an idea, I sim­ply try and ex­plain why we feel it’s the right ap­proach. You take clients on the jour­ney of the thought process and ra­tio­nale.”

At an early con­cept stage, Bax­ter & Bai­ley will al­ways fol­low the process of dis­cussing ideas in­ter­nally us­ing rough sketches – but it’s rare that those rough sketches will ever find their way in front of a client. “At the sketch stage, ideas feel em­bry­onic and open to change. By look­ing at a sketch, we’re scru­ti­n­is­ing the idea, rather than the ex­e­cu­tion,” rea­sons Bax­ter.

“But clients gen­er­ally – and quite rightly – want to see that the ideas we present have the flex­i­bil­ity and strength to work for them,” he con­tin­ues. “If it’s a brand iden­tity, we’re keen to present the idea as broadly and com­pre­hen­sively as pos­si­ble. Can it stretch from a tiny an­i­mated GIF to a mas­sive bill­board? If it can, it’s likely to have legs.”

Nev­er­the­less, even the strong­est ideas can buckle un­der the strain of ‘de­sign by com­mit­tee’, and Suther­land be­lieves re­solve and de­ter­mi­na­tion are es­sen­tial to keep the stan­dard of out­put high. “Good ideas need to adapt and flex, but it’s so im­por­tant to keep sin­gle-minded and strong to keep the in­tegrity of an idea,” he says. “And it’s the re­spon­si­bil­ity of ev­ery­one in­volved to keep that fun­da­men­tal idea alive.”

On rare oc­ca­sions, adds Arnold, it be­comes an up­hill strug­gle not to sell an idea to the client, but to the rest of the agency in­ter­nally. She gives the ex­am­ple of 2010’s ‘rap­ping farm­ers’ spot for Yeo Val­ley that she headed up while at BBH – which spawned a hit sin­gle for fic­tional ‘farmer boy­band’ The Churned the fol­low­ing year.

“The client said, ‘I run a real farm, and I want to make or­ganic pro­duce avail­able to the masses, not mid­dle-class Waitrose mums’,” she ex­plains. “He was ac­tu­ally pre­pared to lower prices to make it more af­ford­able.” Tired of peo­ple say­ing the brand name in­cor­rectly, he added that ‘Yo’ is the right pro­nun­ci­a­tion – which soon set the cogs whirring.

“It may have been the corni­est idea in the world, but rap­ping farm­ers seemed suit­ably fun, pop­ulist and main­stream,” ex­plains Arnold. “We won the busi­ness on it, but had to push it hard within the agency as peo­ple thought it was too cheesy.” It went on the win a D&AD Pencil for Mu­sic in Ad­ver­tis­ing.

You know when you’ve landed on a great idea, Arnold con­tin­ues, and those are the ones where you have to fight. “Some of my best work is where I’ve seen an op­por­tu­nity I hadn’t been briefed on, and tried to do that,” she adds. “If it’s some­thing you haven’t been chal­lenged with, you’re freer.”

“IT’S NOT ABOUT HUGE BUD­GETS OR GEN­ER­OUS TIME­LINES, IT’S ABOUT CLARITY OF THINK­ING” MATT BAX­TER CO-FOUNDER, BAX­TER & BAI­LEY

WHEN TO FIGHT AND WHEN TO FLEE

Ul­ti­mately, of course, the client needs to share your vi­sion to get great work made. Some­times the will isn’t there and it’s a waste of ev­ery­one’s en­ergy to force a square peg into a round hole. “Some­times there’s a point where you have to go, ‘Yeah, the client ac­tu­ally doesn’t want it’,” Arnolds ad­mits.

“You have to fight a lot,” urges Hoff­man, who ad­mits W+K has had projects where a con­cept has been pulled around so much in meet­ings that the soul has been sucked out of it. “In those sit­u­a­tions, you need to talk about what’s hap­pen­ing,” she says. “Limit the idea to what ab­so­lutely needs to be heard, and make that the most im­por­tant thing.”

Arnold adds that it takes guts to tell a client that sug­gested changes are go­ing to un­der­mine, rather than im­prove, an idea. “Ev­ery­one likes to feel they’re get­ting some­where,” she re­flects. “You know, ‘This bit doesn’t work, change this.’ It’s like chop­ping up a Mozart sym­phony. Then you play it, and it doesn’t make any sense. ‘But we’ve got some­where?’ No you haven’t, you’ve just wrecked a re­ally good com­po­si­tion.”

Part of the prob­lem, ac­cord­ing to Arnold, is that clients are con­cerned that a sim­ple thumbs-up to a great idea makes them look like they don’t have any­thing con­struc­tive to add. “It’s so much eas­ier for clients to look in­tel­li­gent and clever if they say ‘no’,” she re­marks. “Sit­ting round a table, ev­ery­one feels they have to have an opin­ion. This is their op­por­tu­nity to shine in front of their boss, you know: ‘It’s re­ally good, but I’m wor­ried about this.’ By the time this poor lit­tle idea has had 14 peo­ple try to look clever and bril­liant, it’s dead.”

As a rule, she con­tin­ues, the more se­nior and self-as­sured the stake­holder, the more likely they are to sim­ply say ‘yes’ to a strong idea. “There’s a rea­son cer­tain peo­ple are at top of the tree – they’re ac­tu­ally re­ally good around cre­ative work. But they’re not around it enough,” she laments.

If you are forced to com­pro­mise on el­e­ments of your idea, Arnold ad­vo­cates fo­cus­ing on the best pos­si­ble ex­e­cu­tion in­stead. “It may be bread and butter, but you can still make it as bril­liant as you can,” she in­sists. “Use a pho­tog­ra­pher you’ve al­ways wanted to work with. Make the mu­sic the best. Get the best il­lus­tra­tor. That’s where I shel­ter: let’s make some­thing beau­ti­ful. Don’t ever do some­thing to­tally joyless.”

Client frus­tra­tions aside, it takes a great cre­ative mind to con­ceive a great idea, and steer it faith­fully to com­ple­tion. Bax­ter lists the char­ac­ter­is­tics he be­lieves all the best designers share: “En­ergy, tenac­ity, per­se­ver­ance, re­silience, an open and cu­ri­ous mind, a broad thirst for knowl­edge and an abil­ity to col­lab­o­rate,” he reels off.

“The big­gest in­ter­nal ob­sta­cles oc­cur when we run out of those things,” Bax­ter con­tin­ues. “Of course we have to bal­ance prin­ci­ples and cre­ative am­bi­tion with prac­ti­cal re­quire­ments like dead­lines and bud­get, but great ideas don’t re­quire huge bud­gets and gen­er­ous time­lines. They need clarity of think­ing.”

“IT HELPS TO LIMIT THE IDEA TO WHAT AB­SO­LUTELY NEEDS TO BE HEARD” SU­SAN HOFF­MAN CHIEF CRE­ATIVE OF­FI­CER, WIEDEN+KENNEDY

Right For this quirky KFC cam­paign, W+K put Colonel San­ders at the heart of all man­ner of stunts and branded mer­chan­dise, from comic books to ro­mance nov­els to videogames.

Above For P&G’s Olympics spon­sor­ship cam­paign, W+K had the genius idea to make the ath­letes’ mums the stars across a whole se­ries of in­spir­ing and up­lift­ing ads.

Above W+K Sao Paulo’s vi­brant Drink Right F*** Right cam­paign for Skol turned the anti-drink-driv­ing brief on its head, mak­ing the same point about sex in­stead of driv­ing. Right Cos­sette’s Fol­low The Arches cam­paign for McDon­alds demon­strates the power of iconic brand as­sets.

Be­low Rosie Arnold had to bat­tle with the nay-say­ers to get Yeo Val­ley’s rap­ping farm­ers spot made.

Right Bax­ter & Bai­ley’s award­win­ning iden­tity for Bog Eyed Books came from an idea scrawled on a scrap of pa­per while in a pub.

Above left Tri­an­gles de­vel­oped from neg­a­tive space in the St Al­bans Cross sit at the heart of Stu­dio Sutherl&’s ver­sa­tile iden­tity for St Al­bans Mu­seum + Gallery.

Above right Packed with crazy scenes and witty di­a­logue, Nike’s Noth­ing Beats a Lon­doner ap­plies W+K’s pen­chant for weird­ness in a very dif­fer­ent way from KFC.

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