With an age of automation and intelligent software, digital agencies are able to produce work that has the scale and quality that could only be dreamed of only a few decades ago. Each stage of a campaign can be complimented by some of the most remarkable tools available to curate, create and measure content for clients. At the heart of all of this technology-driven marketing is something that has never changed, the need for good ideas. This part of the process can’t be automated; no software can replace the output of creative mind.
But despite this, it’s still not easy to come up with ideas. Faced with a blank page, and a pressing deadline, the process of content creation can be full of self-doubt, stress, and often failure.
When we were children, we were creative all the time. Our imagination was something that often needed to be controlled (usually by our parents) instead of fuelled. But since then, as soon as we entered the education system, our brains have been turned from imagination engines into fact-memorising machines.
I found this out the hard way, on day one of running Fat Free. That’s me there, with a punchable face overflowing with the ignorance and self-confidence that comes with being a 21-year-old who hasn’t a clue how the world works:
Up until that point I had spent my whole life trying to learn the craft, the technology, absorbing as much as I could to curate my tastes. I knew which buttons to press on the camera and computer, I had a finely crafted taste, but I didn’t know how to work the creative muscle in my own brain. Nobody had actually taught me how to do that. I could breathe it all in,
But I couldn’t breathe it out.
To make matters worse, coming up with ideas is the one thing the internet can’t fix. You can’t Google an idea, you can’t download concepts. I was so reliant on technology that I didn’t know how to use my own brain to do what mattered most, be creative. The path to original content does not end by searching online.
So what could I do to fix this? With paying clients and pressing deadlines, I couldn’t exactly wait for inspiration. I needed a framework to be able to consistently come up with good ideas on demand. To be able to turn the creative tap on with confidence, and know that something will come out.
The Creative Compass
So here is my framework, this is what I use when I have a creative challenge and a ticking clock. It’s five steps to ensure you follow a creative path in the most effective, efficient and thorough way without losing your mind. It works for anything from business venture ideas, to video content, to marketing campaigns. It is a process that allows you to have faith that there is an idea out there, you just have to go and find it.
Step 1: Learn
The first task is to immerse yourself in the brief, to absorb up every bit of information about the challenge and the challenger. I often compare it to being a rogue detective in an investigation, filling up a wall in a room full of elements of a case, trying to make connections. But that’s what we need to do, we don’t even know what questions to ask yet, but we’re collecting the answers. In practical terms, we read and re-read the brief, browse the client’s website, spending time with their brand, then exploring their competitor websites. We want to breathe in as much as possible about the problem, then stop.
Step 2: Collect
Next we stop being detectives and move to being squirrels. The task here is to fill yourself up with things that inspire you. Like a squirrel filling their cheeks with food, we do the same with videos, blogs, articles, gifs etc. This part of the process is just browsing, with no particular goal in mind other than to explore. For us, we need to be inspired mostly be video content so we spend a lot of time on Vimeo, Pinterest, Behance and more recently, Instagram. We’re looking to browse in a fast and efficient way, using search terms related to our brief, and collecting anything that we like. We use tools like Pocket and Murally to collect content, and this gives us a really useful creative dashboard to take to the next stage.
The good thing about tools like Murally is that you are able to comment on the things you find, dissecting which elements you were particularly drawn to for future reference.
Step 3: Disconnect
So far we have absorbed the problem, we have filled our cheeks with inspiration. Now is the most important step, now is the time to turn off your computer. The computer is now useless. Google is now useless. You must admit to yourself that the answer is not on the internet anymore, no matter how far you search. If you want an original, unique idea that comes wholesomely from you…then you must turn your focus inward, and trust your instincts.
So do this:
And go spend time with a pen and paper. Set a timer for 25 minutes. Start writing. Whatever comes to mind, it doesn’t have to be an idea, it could be a drawing, a word, a diagram. The key here is to start warming up your instincts to create. Fill up the page with thoughts, and see what happens. No internet, no more research, just you and your brain. Your brain is where the true ideas are, this process isn’t instant, it’s sometimes painful but you have to stick with it. You can try to quiet the mind through walking, taking a shower, cleaning, all these things are really useful in getting your brain to a quiet enough state to do what you always used to do when you were a kid…. be creative.
After some time, with some faith, you might have some pages that look something like this:
This stage is about capturing your subconscious on paper. It’s not about creating the finished product, but more the raw ingredients. So when you’re happy you’ve filled up your page, you may want to move on to the next step.
Step 4: Evolve
Many people feel like ideas should emerge fully formed, ready to be released to the world. For the rare geniuses out there, often they are. But for the rest of us, after we’ve filled a page up with potential ideas, we need to do a bit more massaging to get them to be half decent. This stage is where we do that. If you’ve followed the first three steps with enough faith that there is an idea out there, then you might have some beginnings of an idea on your page. This step is like walking through a forest at night with a torch, your task is to illuminate your surroundings enough to figure out which way to go next.
Don’t turn your computer on just yet, because this next step is just about illuminating this idea further. In our team, this involves asking ourselves questions about the idea and visualising the answer. Yes, “close-your-eyes-and-imagine” style, visualisation. I like to picture the idea in it’s finished form, being launched, or being viewed by the audience. We ask, how does it sound? What does it feel like? How does it move? We’re trying to build a visual and tonal character of the idea purely through visualising it as clearly as we can. We’re adding flesh to the bones through mood boards, creative treatment, short elevator pitches for the idea that helps us articulate it. But remember, it’s ok to fail at this stage. The whole point of this process is to get to this point as quickly as possible, and to avoid the spiral of self-doubt that might come from a creative block. We need to fail quickly, illuminate our idea and realise if it’s not working we can go back a stage to try again. But if it is working, if it feels right, then we’re ready to take it to the final step.
Step 5: Express
This is the step that most people try to solve first, the step where we actually create our idea. At this point we’re most likely creating an idea to be shared with a colleague, or a client. We need to be able to take everything that’s in our head and share it with another. One of the most important things I encourage my team to do is not only tell the idea, but the story of the idea. We need to show the client or colleague the path we took to get to this idea. If we’re creating ideas for video content, this stage usually comes with a short script sample, or a creative treatment, potentially even a storyboard. But on top of this, we’ll also share where we started when collecting inspiration, which paths we took, which ones we avoided. We should look to show inspiration we deliberately didn’t want to choose, to help illuminate the ones we did. All of this helps us express not only the idea, but the story of the idea.
Ultimately, having a framework allows me to just trust the process, to have a path to follow in a process riddled with twists and turns and unpredictability.
Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way
This is just the process we follow at Fat Free, and I’d love to hear what kind of processes any readers follow, so feel free to let me know in a comment.
By the way, this article is based on a talk I did all about “The Creative Compass” which I did at Create Expo 2017.