Exploring the Idea

Ideas. They live in the same realm as thoughts, are ephemeral, untouchable, their composition a mystery to science, and yet they can spread across the planet faster than a virus. In this post we look at the science behind one of the greatest human skills, and one intrinsic to the design process: ‘The idea’. And we ask the questions: ‘Do ideas have any value?’ ‘Where do they come from?’ ‘Is there any such thing as a new one? and ‘How do we actively try to generate good ones?’

Ten a penny: Putting ideas in the context of ‘value creation’

We have probably all woken in the middle of the night, or been driving bored down the motorway when it happens: the lightbulb moment. That small cerebral explosion that widens our eyes, quickens the pulse and brings on a sudden scramble (unless driving of course) for paper and pen. There is a sudden sense of urgency to capture – a sense that the ideas essence will slip away as quickly as when waking from a dream.

One of the great myths about ideas however, is that they are of themselves special or unique, or that they contain some magical unique element. I have sat with scores of people, and signed dozens of NDAs with people who will tell you their big idea in a hushed conspiratorial tone, and they REALLY believe that the idea itself is worth something, only it isn’t, it’s worth nothing. Zip.

The summer of love probably felt like a movement because there were SO many ideas flying around, but few of these ideas (except perhaps musical ones) ended up manifested in the real world. Recreational drugs have the effect of firing up synapses and stimulating alternate pathways and connections which can prove very productive for ideation. Unfortunately they also tend to make people lazy.

The truth is that ideas are ten a penny. It is only actualising ideas – making them real, bringing them out of the minds ether into physical or digital form that generates any value. A scientific breakthrough might result from an experiment conceptualised while floating in the bath, but its only the consequent experiment in the lab that really matters.

But there is another important step in the journey from idea to success – execution. History is full of great ideas that have been realised, but with poor execution and so failed – they call it the ‘execution trap’ (but that is a subject for another post)

Where do ideas come from ?

There is an idea of humans that we can only output what has been input. In other words our creative output is the result of a ‘mashup’ of the input that we have to date absorbed. This theory means that we cannot create something actually new, only something that may appear to be new but is in reality a combination of other elements.

“There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.”

Mark Twain, a Biography

Certainly in our connected digital culture, ideas have never been so fluid and liable to be mixed together and experimented with at such a speed. Emerging disciplines such as data visualisation & big data will take this ‘mashup’ culture to a whole new level, and one that will perhaps redefine our understanding of the nature of ideas.

According to James Corner, mapping (data) ‘uncovers realities previously unseen or unimagined, even across seemingly exhausted grounds’. The possibility to stretch your mind by comparing and synthesising various data opens up a realm of possibilities and expands your frame of mind. It uses the information from the x and y axis to construct the z axis.

But there might be more to our post-modern creativity than a constant remix. Carl Jung the psychologist coined a term ‘collective unconscious’ by which he was referring to a set of inherited mental structures and predispositions that we all share, based on a genetic memory. Recently this concept has moved on to imply a collective ‘body of energy’ that we somehow invisibly share and dip into – and this is often cited as the source of ideas and inspirations. The one-mind idea, in which if the idea didn’t come to you, it would come to someone else because it was floating around waiting to be drop into the right brain.

Deliberately creating ideas ‘ideation’

The ‘creative process of generating, developing, and communicating new ideas’. Its not a word I like,  it sounds made up and suggests deliberately sitting down ‘to have ideas’ – on your marks….go – bit off putting. However with a good facilitator at the helm, and a diverse group, ideation can be great fun and very productive. To ensure success though, it helps to ensure that you have a basic framework in place;

Have a context

We need a clearly defined context. Why are you trying to create ideas or innovate ? Whats the bottom line. If you want to cure suffering from a specific disease, then your idea generation is clearly ‘solution based’ as you are trying to solve a problem. Convert more visitors to a landing page ? same, solution based. How about creating a new revenue stream from an underused infrastructure ? – resource based. Find new channels to market for our products or services ? – offer based.  If we are just trying to make more money, or (heaven forbid) just create pointless tat that serves no purpose, then we will struggle.

Have parameters

To really innovate you need boundaries – only in fine art can you really be free of contextual constraints. Constraint feeds good design. If your creative parameters are too open, you’ll struggle.

Follow a design thinking approach

Ideation should follow all the general design thinking ‘rules’ – ignoring rules, having fun, playing, taking risks, prototype as early as possible, making a mess, thinking visually & challenging conventional wisdom.  Last but not least, of course, as modern designers, our first and last thought should be about users, and the ideation process is no exception. Discuss and if possible demonstrate your ideas to your users and audiences, they will have brilliant informed feedback for you – guaranteed – every time.

So to sum up: Ideas in themselves are worthless until acted upon,  considered execution is everything (a great idea poorly executed is a wasted opportunity) There are no original ideas just logical steps or random collisions and combinations of what already exists. Ideas may well come from outside of ourselves (spooky) and to generate ideas, have a context, have parameters, and, above all, have fun : )