How They Got the Idea

Illustration originally by Mel Calman, UK, 1986. 

Illustration originally by Mel Calman, UK, 1986. 

A Smile in the Mind, the seminal book on graphic design, has been recently revised and updated by The Partners Executive Creative Director, Greg Quinton, and writer, Nick Asbury. It not only features work from some of the top designers from around the world, the last section of the book features interviews with legendary designers past and present, answering the biggest question of all: how did they get the idea? Designers offer a glimpse into their private working methods and thought processes, and reveal the inspiration behind classic pieces of work.

Some invoke higher powers, other talk of blind luck, for some it’s about a state of mind or starting with a single word. Yet, in all of the conversations with designers, there is a common theme in what is essentially an activity of the individual mind. Without common themes there would be nothing to be learnt, since each insight would have truth only for the designer concerned. Without difference, the conversations would be repetitive. It’s the differences that give these account their bite and character. Here are a few of our favourite words of wisdom.

Ideas come from under a rock at the back of my head,’ shares New Zealand based Dean Poole. ‘The idea is already there, but I have to uncover it.’

Borrowing from Japanese tradition, Shigeo Fukuda’s ceremonial ritual included first washing his hands with soap, and then sharpening ten or more pencils with a cutter knife. This ceremony helped Shigeo put the ideas in his head into shape.

Milton Glaser doesn’t know how he gets ideas. ‘I think it is possible to describe everything except what is central. An act of insight or a creative act is not very definable. The process is not rational. It exists beneath the surface of your understanding. If it were quantifiable, it would not be creative or surprising.

Readers will value the honesty shared in these interviews. They will feel relieved to learn that missing deadlines and overworking are common problems: ‘You cannot insist on getting an idea by two o’clock.’ (Milton Glaser) ‘It is possible to labour too much for an idea.’ (Jim Sutherland)

They will read about the roadblocks and dead ends, about the pressures that plague even the best: ‘I thought that the poster for America’s most progressive design competition, the One Hundred Show, would be the ultimate easy problem to solve: no restrictions whatsoever, an audience of other designers, nothing but commonality. How could I help but be brilliant? But people crash and burn on jobs like that. I was frozen by it. I put it off repeatedly, even when I was pestered to make decisions about colours and size. The organization pleaded with me to produce at least my statement as chairman to go on the back…’ (Michael Beirut)

But they will also find suggestions on how to get out of the rut to pursue excellence: ‘I tend to have several jobs running at one time, and flip from one to another. It stopped me from wasting time worrying about just one. One problem helps me with another.’ (John McConnell)

The right environment also helps. I love it when we are busy with a lot of projects and the studio is buzzing.’ (Phil Carter) Others need to get out the studio, put themselves in a different environment. ‘If I get stuck on a job I got out for a walk, give myself a whiskey and soda, or go to bed early.’ (Abram Games)

A state of mind, a willingness, an opening of the mind. These are the themes that reoccur in each interview. Each designer finds that willingness in different ways, but each opens their mind to the possibility.  ‘You need to put your mind in a state where it is willing to accept, if you will, God’s grace. These ideas happen when you release your mind from its wilful demand for something to happen.’ (Milton Glaser)

Wit can come as a flash of brilliance or from repeated failures, and as these anecdotes reveal, it’s processes can be dignified or somewhat desperate. Based on personal conversation, these accounts often have a startling honest and intimacy. Some are recent contributions; others are retained from the first addition. Several are no longer with us, but remain vividly present in their work and thinking. A Smile in the Mind allows you to overhear designers from across the generations talking about the secret of secrets – how to get ideas. Order your copy from phaidon.com