When it comes to solving problems and thinking up ideas, there has been a long running debate as to whether these skills must be an intrinsic, instinctual, “creative” talent within a person; or whether creative problem solving be achieved as a learned intellectual ability. For professional visual problem solving illustrators, designers, or artists it is a bit of both. Either way, it is a necessary requirement for anyone considering a career as a creative visual artist.
Professional illustrators and designers usually don’t have the time or luxury to wait for that lightening stroke of inspiration to materialize a brilliant idea. Most of us have to work at it, that’s what makes illustration and design professions. And just about every illustrator I know has a different way of solving a problem to complete a job. I’ve heard of many methods for getting the creative juices flowing, from taking a shower, to running in the park, to staying up straight for 40 hours, to eating pizza after midnight, to prayer, and to even asking pets for advice, seriously. All this in the hopes of getting a great idea.
When asked how he always had great ideas for illustrations, Seymour Chwast replied, “ I don’t always get great ideas, I just never show anyone the bad ones.” When animation director, Chuck Jones, was asked the same question, he replied with one word, “fear”. The fact of the matter is we all get ideas all the time about everything, and we do get ideas for the illustration projects we are commissioned. The problem occurs when it comes to the quality of these ideas we get. And, as it was for Chuck Jones, the “fear” of not being able to come up with an idea or of getting a dreaded “mental block”.
The solution is to apply a working method to solve the problem posed by the assignment and client. Understanding the process of thought that is involved with solving a visual problem can be very useful for challenging assignments.
Whether illustrators and designers are aware off it or not, they instinctively apply many of the following stages of problem solving in the process of working on an assignment. The following is a process for generating ideas and avoiding mental blocks.
|© 2013 Don Arday.
The Assignment (The Problem Stage)
Usually a description with a collection of facts and information describing the assignment and the desired outcome. The assignment will probably be related in terms that are familiar to the client. Most likely the information will be in non-art terms and may involve marketing information and technical specifications. This is a good thing, as clients generally don't have knowledge of visual terminology. You may receive the assignment directly from the client or from an intermediary such as an art director or an account executive. Either way it won't be from an illustrator.
Reinterpretation of Client Input
To prepare for the process of “creative construction” it's necessary to translate the client's description into artistic terms that you can work with, i.e., a personal reinterpretation that applies to pictorial terms and ways of working to allow you to act on the assignment task and content. Reinterpretation will help identify any missing information the client overlooked in assigning you the job, in which case you can ask for further explanation, additional facts, or clarification.
|© Don Arday.
Creative Construction (The Thought Stage)
When you begin to think about a problem, it is important to record any and all ideas, thoughts associations, experiences, first impressions, etc. about the subject. The record of this activity may take the form of visual sketches, written words or short sentences. These will become the building blocks of further ideas. And it is absolutely critical you remain non-judgmental about the ideas you come up with, good, bad, ugly or even silly ones. Don’t disregard any ideas. Know that brainstorming is a very personal activity. At this stage the ideas generated are for you and you alone, and sometimes thoughts that are seemingly unusable may lead to ideas that are. Also, it is not sufficient to simply have the thoughts; they must be put on paper in one form or another. This process can be completed in a short period of time or it can take much longer.
This thought session involves searching for ideas independent of the first thought session, trying to expand the number of ideas to add to the material you already thought of to produce final sketches to present. The main difference is that this time you should relate all of your ideas to the assignment. Try to improve on your original set of ideas. Once again, try to avoid metal blocks by being to judgmental about your ideas. It's often our own judgmental expectations that stand in the way of our creative thinking.
|© 2013 Don Arday.
Research (The Education Stage)
One of the most interesting things about being an illustrator or designer is all the things we learn about various subjects, in order to produce visuals. You must familiarize yourself with the subject of your design problem. This will aid in eliminating stereotypical ideas you may have concerning the subject such as previously publicized phrases or visuals. At all times during this process you should be adding to your cache of ideas. Research is an important part of any problem solving process and should be part of your creative fee. I prefer to brainstorm ideas prior to researching facts. Fixating on a particular fact can sometimes hinder creativity, but some artists prefer to learn about their subject through research before attempting any brainstorming.
These days it is especially important to consider the media requirements of the assignment. You must become aware of the specific production processes, materials, and limitations that will influence the completion of your final image. Budget also becomes an extremely important consideration here. This research will help you make visual and production decisions that will influence the look of your visual. For example, a small, illustrated logo or icon will work better with a high key contrasting color scheme. Dark colors and subtle tones should be reserved for larger display formats. Also, an illustration that will appear on the web may require a different amount of detail and production resolution, than one that will be printed with a 200 line-per-inch screen on a sheet-fed offset press.
|© 2013 Don Arday.
Evaluation (The Decision Stage)
Now it’s time to be judgmental. Idea review is the time to look for some personal benefit that might result from your choice of ideas. This is the stage where you assess all of your thumbnails and other recorded material and select those ideas you feel the most positively about. You can set your own personal criteria to judge the quality of the ideas, like which ones would enhance your portfolio, which ones will best suit your style, or make a great composition. Or you can place classifications on the ideas and categorize them as to whether they are practical, attractive, unique, client suggested, etc.
Consider the criteria given by the client. Re-evaluate your materials and relate them to the requirements of the problem reinterpretation. Search for unique qualities inherent in your ideas to bring attention to your client and even yourself, or ideas that may lend themselves to added benefits, such as a concept that is versatile or marketable. Criteria review is when you choose ideas that will benefit the client and cross-reference them with personally beneficial ones to choose which idea(s) to present. The idea(s) that will motivate you the strongest and you will be most excited to produce--a win, win situation.
|© 2013 Don Arday.
Development (The Proposal Stage)
Now that you know exactly how you want to proceed with the assignment, obtain the specific visual references necessary to visualize your ideas. Begin the final sketch stage, all the while ironing out compositional problems. This is also the point where you should consider the actual working methods needed to produce the finished illustration that will be dictated by the sketch. It is advisable to plan out a logical schedule of action when the sketch is approved to save on time and any production answer questions the client may have.
Sketches don’t sell themselves these days so it’s very important to provide some verbal support for your idea, whether it is spoken or written. Even though you may have provided verbal support, be prepared to justify all decisions concerning the idea and your sketch. It is not enough to be able to intuitively produce a pleasing idea. You must sell your idea clearly. The idea, in turn, will be sold again by whom ever you sell it to, especially if your client must present it to their superior or a constituent. See “10 Steps To Presenting Illustration Ideas Successfully”, posted on 12/11/12, theinformedillustrator.com.
|© 2013 Don Arday.
Production (The Finish Stage)
This is the stage where approved ideas are turned into finished illustrations and prepared for delivery and commercial production, most likely, as a digitized file. All the formal visual and media considerations are finalized at this stage; media, format, size, composition, color scheme, visual elements, digital resolution, file preparation and archiving, etc.
Final ReviewYou are finally finished. But are you? This is perhaps the most important stage prior to the release of the finished illustration, and the one illustrators most regret not doing. Take some time to look the final illustration over very carefully and make sure you are completely comfortable with all the decisions you’ve made. I call it the 5-Minute Rule, take 5-minutes to look over the work. If something “bothers” you, then correct it. It’s the last chance.