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Where do good ideas come from?

Good ideas are hard to come by. Confidence in my own ability to make them really held me back, even in the final year of my design degree, and as a young freelancer. The pressure of a deadline, the worry of not being able to draw well, even the conscious reward of grade or payment, conspired to chew away at my ability to fly a fledgling concept and see where it could go.

As a teacher, I see in the classroom all the time.

Being creative isn’t always easy; those who know how might earn at least a decent living salary doing it professionally, if not the millions that might come to a particularly gifted (and lucky) few.

The world is constantly looking for ideas that are ‘creative’. Though experts might argued about the exact definition, creativity is considered to be a measure of how unique something is, and how useful it is. A chocolate teapot might be a novel idea (i.e. a new way to use a material) but it is not massively useful, could be argued as not a creative idea. Achieving both novel AND useful is hard. Further, some add moral value into the criteria too… it can really make your brain ache!

When I started teaching, I was bothered by the insistence from management that my pupils’ books were maintained as highly curated collections of little manuscripts, with underlined titles, neatly numbered drawings, drafted accurately with rulers, and perfectly scribed annotations. Traces of error or blemish perfectly erased from history….

What designer, going through the experimental and sometimes messy, idea generation process, really works like that?! As if the classroom environment might not be artificial enough for pupils to freely record the contents of their imagination, let's make them worry about the judgement or sanction they might receive for using the wrong type of pencil!

If you can imagine rushing to record an idea at 3am before the working memory fails and the next idea comes along, you’d possibly be more on point about how early ideas are captured. If all you have is a scrappy post-it and an exhausted marker pen, then so be it! That sketch was a million times more valuable to me than the one I made for my tutors (often a retrospective tracing of a prototype photo, pretending to be an early idea, as I didn’t know how to draw from my imagination).

When studying for my MEd, a good decade (or more) ago, I researched how motivation to be creative can be altered by teachers during the idea generation process, and specifically how it could be reduced by enforcing ‘rules’ related to presentation. For pupils who don’t feel they are confident sketchers, struggle to be ‘neat’, or have brains which work faster than their hands can move, this can be super destructive.

Keeping children engaged in an activity that is inherently difficult is….. inherently difficult. Many children will give up when they don’t quickly get a sense of achievement. My challenge as a teacher is to grab early self-efficacy wins, securing engagement to see an idea through. But equally, the stakes have to be low. Counterintuitively, I have to make them feel it doesn’t matter what they produce, that anything is valid, but also completely valueless unless they wish to pursue it. When the pressure to be neat, produce immaculate sketch work, or throw out amazing ideas is off, the climate for experimenting is on. It doesn’t have to work, it doesn’t have to bear any fruit. I relax, so they relax. And they experiment because it doesn’t matter what happens, what it looks like, or what others think.

And guess what? Pupils create ideas that they didn’t expect because the climate is right for experimental failure and accidental success. It works, and those successes come, even when a child believes that they are not able to generate any worthy ideas.

The early stages of creative development for me could easily be summed up in a word- PLAY.

And what’s more, I’ve found the strategies that work for children, work for me as a jewellery designer. Low-stakes play specifically lowers the creativity hurdle. And that’s a bit of a contradiction when you are running a business dependent largely on your creative performance!

‘Play’ sounds unstructured, frivolous and not exactly professional. But playful doesn’t mean unstructured. To metaphorically throw all your paper in the air and expect them to land in exactly the right place is of course, unreasonable, and likewise play, done systematically, works. More on that in another blog.

I find that my ideas only go so far on paper. That’s really a personal preference. I’m a good enough sketcher but I really need to see ideas in three dimensions. To best exploit the process of experimentation, I play with sketch models, usually in similar materials to which I might make; copper instead of silver removes another creative hurdle- anxiety over cost!

My first idea is never my best. It’s only after going through trying numerous different possibilities, can I confidently select the best to develop into a final concept.

Remember I said previously, no judgements? Play is free from that, it explores each possibility as equal to the next. I find a photo of each experiment will effortlessly log the journey travelled, so I that when I’m ready to judge one idea against the other, I can refer back. If I don’t capture an idea, it will be lost as the next steals the focus.

This whole process could take anywhere from 30 minutes to several hours, but it has to be given time it needs, without pressure. Sometimes a rest when progress is slow can be useful too.

So, my response to the question posed in this blog is this:

Good ideas come from the freedom and time to play with different possibilities, in a low stakes and zero judgement context.

For a professional jeweller, the time to do this is not only massively challenging, it is an essential part of the job.

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