Looking Part V: Beyond the idea

mark-making* creative equationOver the course of this series, a number of my fellow mark-makers have provided some terrific insights into the art of ‘looking’ and what it means to them. Much of the focus (pun intended) has been on looking for inspiration and the source of a winning idea. How much I can add to that I’m not sure, so I’m going to reflect on the second part of the creative equation.

‘The idea is king, and delivery rules’

The idea of a two-part creative equation is captured in our core philosophy, and its spirit in our strapline: blood, sweat and ideas since 1995. It can be easy to overlook the fact that creativity, as a means to problem solving, has two distinct yet equally important elements: the idea and making that idea happen.

Everyone has the potential to come up with ideas. It’s certainly not the sole preserve of those with ‘design’ or ‘creative’ in their job title. Though of course, like anything, and athletic ability makes for a nice analogy here, some people have a greater natural talent for it than others.

That said, my concern here is with how to realise the full potential of more ideas. It may be painfully obvious, but the best idea in the world is worth nothing if that’s where it stops. So if you, your team, your organisation is looking to make more ideas happen, and optimise creative potential, here are my suggestions on where to start.

1. Recognise the world has changed

Living in a world of constant connectivity means we have slipped unconsciously into bad habits. We are tirelessly bombarded with ‘incoming messages’ and as a result our workflow has become reactionary, squeezing out time to really think.

The good news is that our minds are still ours, and by self-auditing and taking responsibility, we can fight back. Starting here…

2. Understand your energy

Our energy as human beings is finite. We are capable of only so much before we need to close our eyes and recharge. We’re not machines, but we live in a world increasingly dominated by them. Digital technology, for all its benefits, comes at a price. Contrary to the idea of simplifying our lives, it has made them more complex, placing unrelenting demands on us: demends that exceed our capacity.

So what’s the answer? Manage that energy with care and…

3. Build a routine

Our energy cycles differ for each of us. Start by understanding when you are at your most productive, then ensure that you use that time for the creative thinking, and don’t fritter it away reacting to the stream of mini demands. Go one step further by blocking out that time, give it some hard edges – that’s when you start, that’s when you finish. Show up. No excuses.

As part of this, embrace the idea of ‘frequency’. The bigger the challenge is, often the harder it is to muster the impetus to get started. So go for little and often. It’s more productive, more realistic, more likely to become a habit, while taking the pressure off and keeping the thinking fresh. It’s a lot like running for the majority of people. Once you get into the habit, it’s so much easier to go out the door each time.

And don’t forget to ‘unplug’ as part of your routine, by consciously building in time for rest and renewal. Balance ‘mindful’ with ‘mindless’ activity.

You’ve identified and ring-fenced your creative time, now it’s time to…

4. Get focused

Isolate elements to tackle. Break the task down. Think ‘mini-goals’. The best way to eat an elephant? One piece at a time. Do this, and not only will the task seem less daunting, but you’ll also avoid nagging questions that result from incomplete activities. It’s called the ‘hangover effect’ and is a killer for energy – remember your energy?

One last thing: no multi-tasking. There’s no such thing, it’s just task-switching and it’s not productive. To help with that, do this…

5. Resist Remove temptation

The thing about temptation is that it’s not enough just to resist it. Resisting temptation, even if you are fantastic at it, requires concentration which equals energy. It becomes a vicious circle. The more you have to resist, the more energy you expend, and the less energy you have, the more difficult it is to resist. By the end of the day, if not sooner, you’ve had it; you’ll give in to anything. The answer? Don’t resist it, remove it. Turn off your phone, shut down your email – remove any potential distractions entirely from your field of attention.

There are studies behind this. One such study in 2011 was conducted by a team of psychologists in Copenhagen. Two groups were asked to complete a computer task, in which they performed equally well. The groups were then split. One group was presented with a funny video to watch. The other was presented with the same video with a play symbol on it and asked not to watch it. This was followed by a second computer task in which the group that had to resist watching the video performed worse – their energy drained from resisting temptation.

6. Make progress visible

Ever wondered why we shuffle up when queuing, even when nothing is moving at the front and we know we’ll not get to our destination any sooner? It makes us feel good, like we’re getting somewhere. Progress keeps us motivated. With small reactionary stuff, progress is easy to see. Rattling through twenty ‘urgent’ emails gives us an immediate and tangible sense of achievement – something much more difficult to experience when tackling a big project. So create some markers. Keep iterations and versions of documents, print out your progress, pin it up, see where you’ve come from and you’ll increase the likelihood of reaching your destination.

In a similar vein…

7. Keep the long view in view

Tom Daley's drawing, next to a photo of him realising his dream at the 2012 Olympics

If you know what success will look like, make that visible. It’s powerful. Tom Daley drew this aged nine, nine years before his 2012 Olympic bronze success.

On the flip side…

8. Be prepared to fail

Better still, embrace failure. And if you’re a manager or leader, create a culture that does. It’s no coincidence that the most successful people are generally the ones who have failed the most. I love the expression ‘if you’re not falling over, you’re not trying hard enough’. It reminds me of a competitive friend who prided himself on never crashing out when skiing. Trouble was, his ability soon plateaued, he didn’t improve in the way his friends who were prepared to push edges (literally) did.

If you’re serious about making something happen, about realising the full potential of an idea, you need tenacity. You need to…

9. Persevere

Does the name Diana Nyad ring any bells? When we’re talking perseverance, few do it better. Her idea? To swim from Cuba to Florida in the US without a shark cage. That’s 110 shark- and-jellyfish-infested miles. Her first attempt was in 1978. No joy, so she gave it two more attempts in 2011 and one in 2012. In 2013 at the age of 64, she had another go, and after 53 hours’ non-stop swimming she reached Key West. Mission accomplished. That’s making ideas happen.

Interestingly enough, she talked about the team….

10. No ‘I’ in team

Coming ashore, the exhausted athlete told waiting TV crews: “I have three messages: one is we should never ever give up; two is you are never too old to chase your dreams; and three is it looks like a solitary sport but it is a team.”

So we too need to think of creativity as a social phenomenon, not always a solo activity. Part of what makes an idea creative is its usefulness, and it’s the people around us that help us make that evaluation.

That’s my take on looking. Looking not for the idea itself, but for ways to make ideas happen. Ultimately you need to find your own way. And hopefully there’s something in here that can help you do that.

Me? I’m off to check my emails.

Editor’s note: I joined mark-making* in March last year, and now that I’ve had a chance to settle in, I can report that I’m enjoying myself. It’s been so interesting to work with and learn from other mark-makers, as we move through the various stages of different projects.

Something that has fascinated me particularly is the work that happens before the marks get made. When you learn to make marks in any scenario – hand writing, speech-making, life drawing – you have to do a lot of looking, first.

For this series of posts, I have managed to grab a few minutes with a few mark-makers. I asked them about the looking, and other preparation, that they do before they start to make marks.

About Alastair

Founder and Creative Director

Ali co-founded mark-making* in 1995 after graduating from Lancaster University in Marketing & Visual Arts. Ali works closely with our clients to help bring clarity to their story, and oversees the wider mm* team to ensure it’s expressed effectively, with authenticity and coherence. Ali regularly speaks on the concept of Magnetic Brands, an approach to creating and building brands that embraces the power of being more human, in pursuit of both profit and positive impact. Ali leads mark-making’s work in helping ambitious organisations of all shapes and sizes build extraordinary and enduring appeal.