How to get an idea

How to get an idea

idea - tony dowler At the News Impact Summit in Brussels I presented my idea workflow. Here you’ll find a recap op that presentation including links, to do’s and not to do’s. I found that you don’t get the ideas you wish for, only the ones you work for. So ready for a special ideas workflow?

Thanks VVOJ for the invitation, and thanks European Journalism Centre for having me. :)

0. What is an idea?

To me everything is a remix. I believe all ideas are new combinations of old elements. You can read more about this defition of ideas in the brilliant little book ‘A Technique for Producing Ideas’ by James Webb Young (PDF). Let’s asume Webb Young is right, and you end up with a clear starting points for boosting the amount and quality of your ideas: you need to start with old elements.

1. Consume a lot of old elements

Old elements can be anything and everything that might inspire you. Some of my old elements are audio snippets, quotes, tv-scenes, movie posters, works of art and newspaper articles. If it is of any interest to you, if it stands out to you, than it’s an old element.

To do
— Always be interested in all subjects – you never know where you’ll find old elements.
— Always be browsing for all sorts of information: Google is your friend.
— Treasure your hobbies and side projects, there are important sources for old elements.
— Follow loads of interesting websites and blogs by adding them to an RSS Reader. After looking into Feedly my RSS Reader of choice, I found that I’m really binging on data blogs.

2. Collect the best old elements

Add only the best, most inspirational, exciting elements to your collection. Think of yourself as a curator building your own museum from scratch. Being critical and merciless is a necessity: your collection is as good as the worst piece. Then, like any good curator would do, story your collection somewhere safe. Choose the platform you’re going to use with care: you need to have easy access to your elements, need to be able to search them (your collection will only grow), and – thinking long term – exporting your collection should be easy. And, since it’s 2015, going digital seems logical. But whatever platform you pick, make sure it works for you.

My old elements are at my Tumblr blogs, but I know others use Pinterest. (Before adding my elements to one of my blogs, I temporarily store them in Pocket.)

Film director Jim Jarmusch about collecting old elements:

“Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is nonexistent.”

Some examples of old elements collections
Jan Willem Tulp @ Pinterest
Giorgia Lupi @ Pinterest
Maps on the Web Blog
Visualize Blog
— More old elements collections by people working with dataviz and/or data journalism at Pinterest, collected by Visualoop.
— More old elements collections by people working with dataviz and/or data journalism at Tumblr, collected by Visualoop.

To do
— Set up a Pinterest or Tumblr account. Any platform will do really; just choose one that works for you.
— Become a selective, merciless, but loving curator of old elements.
— Try to update your collection of elements on a regular basis – every week or every month, whatever fits your schedule. You can store your elements in Pocket if you can’t add them to your collection immediately. Make a habit of growing your collection to ensure a steady stream of idea-fuel.

3. Relax.

Some say luck is where preparation meets opportunity. So when you’ve done all the work of step 1 and 2, go relax. Let time do work for you, and just wait and see when your preparation will meet its opportunity.

Not to do
— Obsess about not having an idea.
— Obsess about your old elements (storage).
— Stress out.

4. The A-HA moment

Maybe it will take a while for it to come, but eventually you’ll have your A-Ha moment. The moment when several of your old elements click, maybe even merge with whatever your doing, and combine into a new idea.

Steve Job said about this moment:

“Creativity is just connecting things”

If people say you’re lucky to think of this idea, tell them you worked for it. In the end curating your old elements museum requires some work. In a way you prepared yourself by growing the amount of idea-fuel in the back of you head. Luck is where preparation meets opportunity, you see? :)

Not to do
— Anxiously waiting for this moment to arrive.
— Be disappointed when the idea you end up with isn’t life changing – most ideas aren’t.
— Doubt this method if you don’t like the idea or quality of the idea.

5. Get your idea into the world

Let your idea meet reality: talk about it with others. Learn from any critique you might get. Don’t be afraid to kill your darlings. Don’t be ashamed of bad ideas. Know that if you want to make a masterpiece, you have to be willing to create a little garbage along the way.

To do
— Share your idea to let other help you get to the best ideas.
— Kill your darlings if necessary.
Sketching is thinking: so sketch your idea and think about ways to make it work (better).

6. Go make something – be awesome!

Do what needs to be done to make your idea happen. Remember that having an idea is only a starting point: the best ideas are executed ideas.

Disclaimer: This methods works best if getting ideas is not the sole purpose of collecting your old elements. Since it’s a never-ending circular workflow, every step of the way should be fun. If not, you won’t last long.

Why this isn't stealing

Why I think it’s totally okay to be a copycat

Since I truly believe all ideas are new combinations of old elements, there’s no way you can’t be a copycat. But unlike many others I don’t think that’s a problem. Copying spurs innovation, so keep on going. And while you’re on it, don’t forget to:

  1. Compliment: whenever borrowing, reusing, recycling or building on something made by someone else try to give credit where credit is due.
  2. Share: be as transparant as possible about your inspiration. This is hard, since sometimes you won’t even know what exactly inspired you.
  3. Own it: whenever reusing something try to put yourself a bit into the mix; this ensures you never make an exact copy since we’re all unique.
  4. Remix: using more old elements for one new idea avoids exact copies as well.

Artist Austin Kleon, author of Steal like an artist, likes to put it this way:

good theft - austin kleon

At the Huffington Post you’ll find three reasons to steal, not to copy.
And to make sure things are okay: Here is Your Official Permission to Be a Copycat (recap on 99U). It’s a good read on how imitation and copycats fuel innovation:

“Throughout human history, innovation – including the technological progress we cherish – has been fuelled and sustained by imitation. Copying is the mighty force that has allowed the human race to move from stone knives to remote-guided drones, from digging sticks to crops that manufacture their own pesticides. Plenty of animals can innovate, but no other species on earth can imitate with the skill and accuracy of a human being. We’re natural-born rip-off artists. To be human is to copy.”

Disclaimer: I was totally inspired by Austins book.


Further readings

Some links I collected which I think might be of interest to those trying this idea workflow and/or interested in data journalism.

On how to get ideas

Other articles that might interest you

Presentation links

  • For my presentation I didn’t use any slides, but showed webpages instead. On this page you’ll find all links I used. :)

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