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September 2016

Processes in the brain (and smiles in the mind)

I’ve written an article for Creative Review this month. It’s called ‘How to write an award-winning annual report’, but it’s not really about writing or about annual reports – it’s my attempt to share a technique for having ideas. I use the example of a routine annual report brief and suggest how you can use a methodical process to generate ideas for it.

It’s the methodical part that interests me – the extent to which you can systematise the process of creative thinking, or break down what’s happening in the brain as you’re thinking of ideas.

I think most designers and writers will recognise this feeling. On the one hand, when you’re thinking ‘creatively’, you’re thinking in a freeform, ‘blue-sky’ way and every brief is different. But you also get the sense that your brain is running a familiar program that can be described and broken down. For example, you may feel your brain is shuffling through two sets of cards, looking for a match. Or it’s doing what I describe in the article, which is listing expectations and exploring the opposite.

As I say in the article, you can only get so far with any methodical approach. Even if it leads to a good idea, most of it comes down to how you follow up the idea – and that involves all sorts of aesthetic/strategic/tonal micro-decisions, which aren’t as easy to break down in a mechanical way.


The last section of A Smile in the Mind involves a series of contributors tackling exactly this question – how to have ideas. For me, the best part of updating the book was the chance to talk to people about that subject. 

Dean Poole talks about exploring a series of different rooms. Jim Sutherland (also in Creative Review this month) talks about externalising the process – putting stuff on walls and looking for connections. Michael Johnson talks about the writing and strategy that precedes the visual part. Noma Bar talks about ideas as ‘already existing, waiting to be found’. Sarah Illenberger talks about the ‘physical torment’ of ‘squeezing your brain’. Christoph Niemann talks about the myth of the ‘eureka’ moment and describes a ‘difficult and unglamorous’ process of stripping away (something he captured in the pencil shavings sketch above). 

There’s an exhibition of the book starting at Foyles in London on 16 September and running for six weeks – more details here.

The Creative Review article is in the September print edition and online here.