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Directions for Developing Ideas for a Design/Art Project

"… design is not something to ‘think’, but to do — ‘design doing’ over design thinking." from Dan Hill: Design education needs physical space

Methods, Techniques or Tricks for Finding Ideas

generating good ideas is the howly grail in art + design. many myths are shrouding the process of how people come to have good ideas ( see e.g the concept/myth of the genius ). there are millions of methods, books, seminars, and writings on the topic. still there is no unifed truth regarding the applicability and quality of such methods; some are better than others while some just work for some people better than for others.

while there is a significant amount of people arguing that the whole idea of applying methods to finding ideas is flawed or even dangerous ( especially for artists and designers ) to begin with. thus it is of grave importance that one experiments with and identifies the methods that work best for oneself. experimenting with such methods and reflecting their effects is first and foremost a way of understand oneself better ( similar to reading a horoscope which is also much more about understanding oneself than predicting the future ).

from my own experience i can say that there is no single method which i found superior. still i cultivated an interest in hearing, learning and subjectively evaluating such methods; but always with a critical mindset, a great deal of suspicion and most importantly always on my own terms.

  • problem solving
  • observing situations + people
  • by reference / derivative idea
  • improving exiting things
  • mesh-up + symbiosis
  • wandering thoughts + low-attention + misunderstanding
  • serendipity
  • arbitrary constraints
  • rethink the assignment
  • the normal
  • rubberduck
  • inversion
  • thinking with hands
  • physical exercise
  • keep a sketch book by your bed
  • sprints
  • civilised conversations
  • randomness
  • explore analogies
  • matrix
  • variations
  • take things apart and put them back together again

there is also a related wikipedia category Creativity Techniques which might be more or less helpful.

Problem Solving

  • the mother of all idea finding methods ( at least in a design context )
  • often overly stretched ( when everything is considered a problem ( e.g designing a happy birthday card is really not a problem ) or when situations are inflated to be problems that a really not ( e.g #firstworldproblems ) )
  • identify a problem and solve it
  • almost any everyday situation or interaction can serve as a problem ( e.g "putting on socks in the morning" produces a strumpfanziehhilfe )

Observing Situations + People

situations usually refer to the everyday, the banal and the mondaine. look at everyday situations. important and insignificant. small and big. describe and analyze such situations. see what you would want to change about these situations or who you would want to comment or extrapolate such situations but also contemplate what others might want, need, or desire. you might look at a situation as a problem you want to solve, as a poetic coincidence, as something generalizable, as a constellation, etcetra.

similarly shift the focus away from situation and assume a human-centered perspective by observing people. how do they do things? what do they care about? become acquainted with your audience ( recipient, customer, client, user, … ). it might be worth considering to invest some extra effort, planning, and preparing to be able to better observe people. interviews in all shapes and forms are traditionally a powerful tool to learn and understand. however being a designer it is also worth considering to deliberately design for this endeavor. find or design other or new ways to learn about people ( see e.g cultural probes ).

by the way, the ability to project oneself into the mind of another person is an important skill when observing people and situations. this ability is often refered to as empathy. empathy is a central ability for designers; not only when finding ideas. to be able to empathize with the people one is designing for allows for a permanent evaluation feedback cycle of the design and the design process.

By Reference / Derivative Idea

look at other people works, projects and ideas. get inspired by others. it is quite normal to come up with your own project ideas while wandering through an exhibition or browsing through a catalogue.

note, that it is quite normal to form a band and start by covering or remixing tracks of other bands or acts.

Improving Exiting Things

look at all things that exist, whether human-made ( artifact ) or produced by nature and strive to improve them. obviously the notion of improving is a fuzzy concept but even more interesting to define, vary, and argue for.

Mesh-Up + Symbiosis

combine two or more ideas, concepts, technologies, material, etcetera that were hitherto not.

Wandering Thoughts + Low-Attention + Misunderstanding

  • looking at huge numbers of documentations of other designer’s projects and misinterpreting or misunderstanding them accidentally or intentionally ( peter buczkowki’s example )
  • reading complicated literature ( e.g philosphy ) to get the mind to wonder ( dennis p paul’s example )


  • facilitating coincidence
  • creating productive situations that may lead to random discoveries

Arbitrary Constraints

take an exisiting concept or idea and ( almost ) arbitrarily constraint certain parameters of that concept or idea. the interesting part is to identify such parameters ( see also Variations ).

in traditional graphic design the notion of only using one font, one fontsize, and two colors to create a complex modular design is quite a common starting point.

Rethink the Assignment

if there is an assignment. look at it analyze it, take it apart and put it back together in different ways.

The Normal

the first idea. think of the normal. speak it out, sketch it out. then think beyond that.


talk to people, things or rubberducks. it is not so much about the reactions but about formulating thoughts while speaking.


take an assumption and invert it. e.g "navigation systems are designed to get some from A to B as fast as possible." inversion: "navigation systems are designed to prevent you from getting from A to B." this inversion raises questions e.g what could such a navigation system be used for? is there a value in getting lost? maybe you can ask such a navigation system to help you get lost for exactly 3 hours, etcetera.

Thinking with Hands

do, make, build, scribble, sketch, manipulate, break, glue. it can be very helpful to have materials to almost mindlessly play around with. e.g duct tape and woodenstick can help a lot to get a spatial understanding of an object.

Physical Exercise

showering, walking, jogging, cycling.

Keep Sketch Kook by Your Bed

always keep a sketchbook by your bed. whether it is digital or paper-based. often times good ideas emerge right before falling asleep.

however, this advice comes with a note of caution:

In an interview, Francois Truffaut asked Alfred Hichcock if he ever used his dreams for film material. Hitchcock said, no - never. Truffaut asked why. Hitchcock said that once he woke up in the middle of the night after a dream containing a brilliant idea for a movie. So he got up and scribbled it down. In the morning, he remembered he'd written something down, and read his note. It said, "Boy meets girl".

from Stephanie Skura: Choreography: Boy Meets Girl (1981)


develop an idea in a fixed and short amount of time. then present it to another person. you may repeat this process over and over again. the idea is to swing back an forth between introversion and extroversion in a short period of time.

Civilised Conversation

the ‌civilised conversation is also know as brainstroming. the main point is that the conversation needs to be based on a good, welcoming, positive and respectful atmosphere. there are no bad ideas. if you do not like an idea either develop it further or move on to the next one.

consider using pen and paper to skribble while you talk.

‌civilised conversation can happen between 2 or more persons, however, at some point the group grows to big for a fully inclusive conversation.


write an application that randomly combines multiple sets of words. you pick the good permutations from the bad ones.

Explore Analogies

compare exisiting products/services/artworks/etcetera to extrapolate and associate them with new properties. a possible language pattern for this method could look something like this:


  • "a service like TWITTER only for DOGS"
  • "a product like OCCULUS_RIFT only for BABYS"


create a matrix of ( two or more ) assumption or properties and contemplate the results. e.g permutations on god and believe:

A + B =
believe in god because he exists theist
not believe in god because he does not exists atheist
not believe in god because he exists lucifer + cpt ahab
believe in god because he does not exists ???

for reference see the lecture Graham Harman: Art and Paradox.


take an exisiting idea, identify a parameter, and deliberately create variations of it. then discard the variations that are not interesting.

the parameters can be of very different quality. consider for example the design of a chair: an inital idea can deliberatly tested against a parameter like color. a variation on that parameter might yield a series of variations, however it is most likely that this parameter does not generate a large delta in the interestingness of the resulting variations of the initial idea ( except for those cases where the color is for example a thermochromic color that reacts to body temperature ;) ). if you however take a paramter like scale ( especially non-uniform scaling ) the resulting variations can become very weird and extreme, ranging from miniatur dollhouse chairs to chair-shaped installations in public spaces.

appart from parameters physically connected to the artifact, more conceptual or meta paramters can also be varied. in the chair example a parameter of this quality could be the assumed user of the chair. it can create interesting variations to assume the user being small or tall, young or old, human or animal.

Take Things Apart and Put them back together again

while this strategy can be taken quite literally ( there is a lot to be learned from looking into a desktop computer every once in a while ;) ) it is also a metaphor for more conceptual and less mechanical approaches.

taking things apart obviously refers to the idea of analysing the build blocks that constitut a ( sometime opaque ) final artifact/thing/product. these building blocks are of course not always available, sometimes even hidden deliberatly but e.g watching talks or lectures often give an insight in the making of.

another analogy is the garage band. this method refers to a group of moderately avid musicians ( often of younger age ) that come together in the shared interest to make music. the constellations often start working by playing songs of their favorite musicians. in order to do so these songs must be taken apart ( e.g notes, structures, atmosphere ) and put back together again ( i.e played or performed ). eventually such garage bands would start putting things together in a modified way often too an extend that their own music style emerges.

Archiving Ideas

although not directly connected to finding ideas it definitely makes a difference how you archive your ideas. archiving in this case refers to the process of transfering an idea into a medium that can be revisted later. it is worth developing strategies of how to achieve this. an example of well tested media are the following:

  • sketchbook :: very powerful tool to archive all sorts of found and produced fragments ( including digital )
  • writing text :: a good skill to practice for applications and proposals. consider different writing styles or forms e.g bullet point lists, keywords, full sentences, etcetera
  • video or audio recording :: record conversations or individual spoken thoughts

Strategies for Presenting + Visualizing Ideas

it is also of grave importance to choose and develop strategies to transport ideas. there is a wide range of proven strategies established in the field of design/art. below is a list of some of the most common ones:

  • sketches
  • photomontage
  • collages
  • moodboards
  • renderings
  • references e.g:
    • design/art works
    • inventions
    • research papers
    • patents
  • mock-ups ( material + photo + video )
  • video prototypes
  • software sketches

see also Directions for Visualizing Concepts for a more indepth discussion of the topic.


despite all the above methods, techniques or tricks probably the most important aspect of finding ideas ( or being creative for that matter ) is the context, atmosphere, mood or state one is in. it is crucial to find the most productive mode for oneself. while some like to be alone other need to talk to people to be creative. some need to be playful while others need the stress of an impending deadline. as mentioned in the beginning the only real piece of advice here is to explore, experiment and critically reflect one’s own idea finding process.

John Cleese shares some thoughts on the topic at John Cleese Keynote Speech at Creative Arts Design School where he talks about creativity and how it is affected ( or limited ) by the way we think we should work.


  • Liberating Structures "Liberating Structures introduce tiny shifts in the way we meet, plan, decide and relate to one another. They put the innovative and faciliative power once reserved for experts only in hands of everyone."

This document is available as a public document at Directions for Developing Ideas for a Design/Art Project.

@todo( add more examples to explanations )