As a graphic designer, creativity is essential. But there are days I'm just not inspired and need some help. In college I learned how to break down the creative process into simple and easy steps, and have since refined that process into five specific steps. Today I'd like to share that process to help give you a structure for developing creative ideas, whether you consider yourself creative or not. And I realize a "process" for creativity sort of sounds like an oxymoron, but I believe successful ideas are carefully crafted rather than just pulled out of thin air – and anyone can do it.
STEP 1: Preparation & Research
Before you even begin creative thinking, it’s important to understand scope of project, and ask right questions to be successful in the creative process. Step 1 helps you determine the parameters of the project by gathering all the information you’ll need throughout the process.
To do this in a business setting:
• Identify and meet with decision makers and those closest to the project. Whether it’s one person or a committee, make sure it’s clear who is and isn’t involved.
Timeframe: work backwards from final deadline to create a schedule. Creative projects could go on forever if there’s no deadline. Even if it’s made up and flexible, it’s best to set some bounds.
• Identify the target audience: internal vs external, commercial vs. personal, the general age group or other demographics. Who is affected by the project or final output?
• Agree to a strategy for reviewing the concepts, and if there should be one concept or multiple. Set the meeting now for when you’ll review the work.
• Ask questions that are clarifying and inspiring: Clarifying questions help you understand what is required and provides guidelines, while inspiring questions help drive the creative process. Take time to prepare these questions in advance, so you are prepared to gather all the info you need at the meeting. My personal favorite inspiring question is "What are three words that describe this project?" People don't love answering this question, but it provides valuable insight as to what the ultimate goals and outcomes are for the final product.
To do this in a personal setting:
• If you are working by yourself, take some time to consider clarifying and inspiring questions and answer them the best you can on your own. Take some time to think about the needs of the project before jumping in.
The second part of Step 1 is to gather as much information as possible so you can be successful at executing your creative idea. Look up existing examples and competition, the target audience, key words associated with the project, design trends, and color palettes.
STEP 2: Brainstorming & Concepting
This is the most important step in the process, and the true beginning of the creative process. It's also usually takes the longest (because you can’t control how long it takes to get a good idea). Set aside time just for brainstorming and concepting, but it will also happen when you’re not specifically working on the project. Document your ideas. I like to put pen to paper: drawings and sketches, lists, key words. If a notebook doesn’t work for you, use whatever method fits you best: the notepad on your phone, a recorded voice memo or even sending yourself a text or email.
Sometimes I go back to the research step if I’m having trouble coming up with ideas, but I make sure not to just steal ideas if this is the case. Plaigerism is a serious crime. Use your research to inspire, not copy.
Be a sponge, constantly drawing inspiration from the world around: read related materials, browse the internet, watch TV, listen to music, take a bath, have a drink, exercise, brainstorm with coworkers/friends/family, or go to a museum. Document ideas that strike you even when you’re not actively working on the project.
Give yourself plenty of time to work through this step, and give yourself breaks (this step should not be done in one sitting). Let your ideas percolate, marinate and incubate.
You’re ready to move to the next step when you feel you’ve exhausted your creative brainstorming and can easily pick out strong ideas from your documented notes. You may have one clear solution or want to develop a couple concepts. You should know how many final create based on information you gathered in Step 1. If offering choices, 2-4 unique options is ideal, but don't offer more than 5 (people become overwhelmed when presented with too many choices).
STEP 3: Development
Step 3 is the development stage. This is where most of the real “work” is done; where you do the actual production of the creative project. This is the stage in my work that I take it to the computer and truly begin designing. During this stage, you want to fully develop your idea(s), playing with colors, images, text, shapes, textures, etc. You may work one idea many different ways, creating multiple variations. You may end up abandoning a concept because it just won’t come together. Take time to fully develop your concepts, ending up with 1-5 unique polished ideas at the completion of this stage.
STEP 4: Evaluation & Revisions
This is the step where you present your concepts to the decision makers for feedback.
If you are the only person affected by the project, take some time to review your efforts and objectively assess your results based on the things you identified from Step 1. Share the project with family or friends for feedback.
If there are multiple decision makers, this part of the process can take some time for everyone to reach consensus. It's best to have everyone meet together to hear all the feedback and determine the next steps. Multiple viewpoints expressed via email may leave you with more questions than answers. During the meeting, take notes on essential changes and mere suggestions and make sure you understand the difference. Determine if testing is necessary.
Use the feedback you gather to complete one final creation, polishing all aspects (use spell check, prepare in appropriate formats for final use, etc.) Do this immediately after you've received feedback, while all info is still fresh in your mind, helping keep up momentum and excitement for the final creation.
Step 4 may need to be repeated as many times as needed, keeping final deadline in mind. Tip: Ask those involved in the project to submit all changes and revisions once - don’t make changes six different times if you can help it (which wastes everyone’s time). Set the expectations up front for best results. This is where deadlines - real or imaginary - can help keep revisions to an acceptable number and timeframe.
STEP 5: Implementation
Once the final creation has been approved, it needs to be implemented. This is where it is distributed, showcased, or released. If you’re not directly involved in this process, make sure you at least know how/when it will happen so you can experience it! This is by far the most satisfying part of the process, so make sure to take time to appreciate (and if possible, share) the final product.