Turn your brain into a factory for ideas

Everyone’s excited about digital product design, but how do you come up with viable concepts with development potential? Chris Murphy has a few ideas...

We're living in a world where designers and developers‚ who were previously focused on their clients and services, are increasingly turning to digital product design to develop potential new business streams. But how do you generate those ideas and concepts? How do you open the idea floodgates to provide an endless supply of raw material that you can develop and build into finished products?

Contrary to popular opinion, ideas are easy to come by. It's implementation that's the hard part. Set aside time for idea generation and you should find an endless supply of ideas flowing, far too many to implement. The hard part is in deciding where to apply resources to develop these ideas.

The first part of the idea generation equation lies in priming the brain and feeding it with knowledge. The second part of the equation lies in encouraging chance collisions to ensure that primed brains collide at regular intervals. When these parts of the equation come together, ideas flow in abundance.

Priming the brain

Priming the brain is about getting the brain to think in the right way. To foster an idea generation culture we need to foster a culture of information hungriness; that process shouldn't just happen at the start of a project, it should be occurring all the time. A mind that's naturally inquisitive will forever be overflowing with ideas.

Priming the brain is about getting the brain to think in the right way

One simple strategy to encourage more ideas? Read more, and read widely. There are a number of excellent books on ideas and where they come from. Two that should be at the top of any self-respecting designer's list are The Myths of Innovation by Scott Berkun as well as A Technique for Producing Ideas by James Webb Young. Both are worth their proverbial weight in gold and will pay for themselves many times over.

The Myths of Innovation demystifies the myths that are often conjured up to explain innovation. As Berkun puts it, "Ideas never stand alone, the ideas we remember are always the product of other ideas and inventions."

"The Myths of Innovation demystifies the myths that are often conjured up to explain innovation," Murphy comments

Break any idea down‚ for example, Twitter and Instagram, and you'll find other ideas (SMS and Polaroids, respectively). The idea that these ideas magically appear fully formed from nowhere is a million miles from reality. In fact, they're the result of inquisitive minds that recognise new connections or old patterns repeating.

A Technique for Producing Ideas by Young is a short, sharp and extremely valuable treatise on the process of generating ideas. Young's process is simple and centres on training the mind by filling it with a ready supply of raw material. From this fuel, ideas form, which are combinations of old ideas (unsurprisingly). In short, ensure your life is full and the ideas will flow.

Chance collisions

We've all experienced that moment when bumping into someone in the corridor, or running into a colleague in a coffee shop, sparks a conversation that brings together the different pieces that lead to something new. Before you know it, you're in a two-hour conversation, conjuring up plans for world domination. These chance collisions are where magic happens.

Companies like Google, animation studio Pixar and design firm IDEO understand this all too well. They orchestrate their work spaces to encourage chance interactions. Power supplies in the stairwells, beanbags in open-plan spaces, desks dotted around, seemingly unowned: these are all designed to help facilitate idea generation.

Pixar has gone to huge lengths to ensure employees never lack creativity

By designing workspaces to orchestrate chance meetings and facilitate new patterns of work, we can ensure our primed brains collide to create unexpected ideas that have potential. You don't need to have the budget of Google to put these pieces in place, you can instead encourage a more freeform office culture or perhaps‚ heaven forbid, allow your employees to occasionally work off-campus.

Culture of ideas

Idea generation isn't difficult. Idea factories are easy to build if they're approached strategically. By allowing yourself the latitude to step away from the computer from time-to-time, you'll give yourself time to fully prime your brain and start thinking in the right way. Combined with your natural curiosity and inquisitiveness. This will, in turn, encourage chance collisions between other primed brains, and you'll find that the rest of the pieces fall into place. Simple

Christopher Murphy is a writer, designer and educator based in Belfast. He's writing a new publishing imprint for Tiny Books.

This article originally appeared in Computer Arts issue 222.

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