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Work / Miscellaneous

“Are we any wiser about how ideas work?”: How to spark worthwhile creative ideas in 2019

Towards the end of 2018 WeTransfer released its Ideas Report digging into where, why and how creative ideas develop and reach fruition. Below Rob Alderson, VP of content and editor-in-chief at WeTransfer, shares his five key learnings as a guide to developing ideas to inform your creative practice this coming year.

In On Writing, Stephen King admitted that he and his writer friends never ask each other how they get their ideas because “We know we don’t know”. Coming from a man whose work covers everything from It to The Shawshank Redemption, you can see why he’d think tracing the genealogy of his work would be fruitless.

Our obsession with ideas remains undimmed. That’s unsurprising, given that for creatives, ideas are everything. But our understanding of ideas hasn’t kept pace with our interest in them. Beyond simplistic and reductive interview questions, are we any wiser about how ideas work?

That was the impetus behind the WeTransfer Ideas Report which we published late last year. We asked 10,000 creatives when and where they get good ideas. We asked what seemed to help this crucial part of the creative process, and what got in the way.

We crunched the numbers, teased out some key findings and released the results. Our aim was never to hack the creative process by suggesting shortcuts. There are none (sorry). Rather, we hoped that by capturing the creative experiences of 10,000 people in 143 countries, we could at least raise some interesting questions about how creative ideas work.

The following thoughts are based on our original research, but also on the dozens of conversations I’ve had about the work since we published it.

I know that January lists are famously full of hollow brio and over-optimistic promises. I hope this one is different; that it offers some possible prompts to think about your own work as we head into 2019.

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Look for offline stimuli

The biggest lesson we took from the report was that when it comes to having good ideas, creatives find offline stimuli much more useful than online ones. Four of the top five answers for the question “What helps you have ideas” were things you experience away from the screen – books and magazines, talking with friends, travel and nature. Only music made the top five (in fourth) and even that doesn’t usually involve staring at a device.

In Hit Makers, Derek Thompson’s excellent book about cultural popularity, he talks about humans being drawn to fluency – ideas, opinions and experiences with which we’re familiar. The online world is designed to reward and re-inforce fluency; we’re fed content that’s similar to the things we’ve watched, liked and commented on before. This is soothing for our brains, but terrible for creativity, for having new ideas and making new connections. It’s not surprising that these offline experiences – with in-built potential for disfluency – were seen as more useful.

When presenting the Ideas Report to a group in London, I was asked about how we can create disfluency online. This led to a long discussion, and suggestions ranging from the simple – committing to starting your day with a different website – to the more daring, like handing your Spotify or Netflix over to a friend for a couple of weeks and seeing how their habits change the types of recommendations you get.

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Find your place for productivity

Something else I’ve been asked about since we launched the Report is the difference between having ideas (are we really going to say ideation?), and productivity. It was striking that only 13 per cent of people said that they had good ideas in cafes or coffee shops. And yet head into any Starbucks in any city and I bet you find creatives working away.

I think what’s going on here is that coffee shops are great places to work once the ball is rolling (especially for freelancers who don’t have a set workplace). But we need to recognise that getting the ball rolling and imagining the ball in the first place are different processes that work in different ways. This links to time as well. Productivity takes hours; ideas can take seconds.

Be aware of habits and change them if necessary

We spoke a lot during this project about different types of creative minds. As part of the report, we compared and contrasted how people working in different disciplines approached idea generation. It was fun to find out who found alcohol useful (musicians, illustrators) and who had their best ideas in the bathroom (people in advertising).

We always knew this had to be taken with a pinch of salt; that each illustrator or musician naturally works in a different way. But something we hadn’t considered enough was how the same person can have different moods or phases that affect the way they think.

Several people said that, on the whole, they need quiet/silence to have their best ideas. But on occasions, they need a change of pace and find messy, noisy, chaotic environments much more conducive to coming up with something new.

So it’s important to be aware of our habits and change them up if necessary. It’s also vital for people who design and run creative workplaces to provide different set-ups for different people in different moods at different times.

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Develop a system to record ideas

Sometimes ideas arrive fully-formed, but very often they come much less prettily, as half-formed mongrels dragging themselves from the primordial soup of your subconscious. Don’t run from these: have a system – a proper system – for recording, revisiting and rethinking them.

The majority of creatives told us they prefer to record ideas on pen and paper and there is neuroscientific evidence that this process of handwriting actually helps us process our thoughts in a more thorough way. But hands up if you have notebooks filled with doodles, half-sentences and public-transport-musings that you never make time to go back to? Talk about disfluency – there may be some absolute gold in there (probably some joyful nonsense too!).  

Identify what hampers ideas developing

As and when we run the Ideas Report again at the end of this year, I’d like to explore further what hampers people having good ideas. We asked one question about this in 2018, and 41 per cent of people told us that “other work pressures” was the main thing that got in the way. Add the 24 per cent who said “time” and you have a picture where two-thirds of people seem to be struggling to make space to actually think.

This should be terrifying. If you run a creative team, are you guilty of squeezing out the time it takes to actually generate ideas, the quality of which will define and differentiate your business? And if you’re a creative, do you find that there is no time for ideas? If so, is this OK? Is this fulfilling?