Stop. Look. Listen.

The importance of all the bits that feel like time-wasting.

Earlier this week, The Partners’ Design Director Kath Tudball gave a talk at D&AD for its Design Creative Lab. Kath unpacked her creative thinking style, pointed out the importance of letting your mind wander, and urged designers and strategists to always try to make a virtue out of a problem.

Kath, like anyone else, beats herself up about faffing. She even looked up the definition of faffing while preparing for the talk. But she also proffered another take on it, because although she recognises that a lot of her thinking is “messy” and “distracted”, it’s also creative, and strategic, and it’s open to influence and inspiration.

Using D&AD’s invitation to talk as the brief, Kath got “a bit meta” and showed us the type of thinking she sees as necessary for strong ideas and understanding the context of what you’re trying to achieve. 

For those not lucky enough to hear it first-hand, fear not. I was there taking notes and, after plenty of procrastinating (as prescribed by Kath!), I’ve written up my key takeaways from the session.

STOP

Rushing. 

Lots of thinking happens when you’re in the thick of it, but there’s a danger, sometimes, of rushing into the doing-part of the process. “To have a real idea and not just a beautiful visual execution, you need to take a pause and process everything.” Don’t let the terror of time-wasting cut out that important part of the process.

Jargoning.  

Speak in everyday language because that is where your work will live.

LOOK

For the human connection.

Kath recognises that she thinks rationally as well as emotionally in her approach to work and that bridging the two is her tendency to think obsessively about the details of a project.  Finding a balance between analysing and empathising is crucial because you need to remember who you’re designing for and with throughout the process; communicating clearly with your client and team will always make an idea stronger.

Everywhere.

Let your mind wander – take the tangent turns, people watch, let the world filter into your thoughts.  Kath’s advice is to walk it off, doodle, and write things down – “and there’s actual science behind the walking” she adds.  

For the opportunity.

“Make a virtue out of the problem and celebrate the challenge in the brief.”

For this point, Kath reflected on a project she worked on in her Johnson Banks days. “Here’s something you probably didn’t know: to be on a stamp, you technically have to be dead or royalty.”  Not deterred by these restrictions, the team designed Royal Mail stamps that celebrate British fashion across the ages, cutting out the faces so that the focus is solely on the clothes.

For the story.

“A good story designs itself. You just need to find it.”

As an example, Kath referred to her recent work for London Cru.  London’s first winery had asked The Partners to design labels for its new range of wine, giving them something that would bring its urban roots to the fore. This is where the obsessive thinking kicked in – “make some labels” became an exploration of vine leaves, patterns, and their similarities to city maps.  The result is a distinctive label design that fits the streets of London within the outline of a leaf, with the River Thames acting as the leaf stem. 

LISTEN

To others.

“Externalise your thoughts.  It’s the only way to sound-check yourself.” Collaboration and constantly talking through your ideas with other designers, strategists, colleagues, friends… anyone!  It’s also a good way to stop yourself jargoning.

To the client.

Sometimes an idea is already there, it just needs to be recognised and elevated. “Take the recent campaign we designed for Theirworld - #RewritingTheCode launched for this year’s International Women’s Day, it trended globally, twice, and to date it’s reached over 86 million people.” But the campaign didn’t spring out of thin air, it grew gradually and took inspiration from an idea that D&AD New Blood Winner Niamh Deehan came up with the previous year to tackle barriers to girls’ education and promote Theirworld’s Code Clubs.

Kath explains that when Theirworld approached The Partners a year on to expand the idea, it was important to pick up on the success – keep the name, keep the symbols – and think of how to move it on from a literal promotion of coding clubs to encouraging people to spot hidden values and behavioural codes of gender inequality in everything around us.

To all the voices in your head.

This is the big one according to Kath: don’t see it as left-brain vs. right-brain, as strategic vs. creative thinking, because great ideas live somewhere in the middle and it’s not only possible to bridge the gap, it should be the goal.