Tag Archives: design thinking

The Art of Idea Logging

One of my favorite parts of being a designer is upholding the practice of keeping an Idea Log. Actually, you might say I’m an overachiever in this respect, because at any given moment I’m usually keeping 5+ idea logs for different subjects.

An idea log is a solo, visual record of thinking, one that you create as you think rather than after the fact, as you would a journal. Moreover, the idea log is a kinesthetic tool for the thinking itself, giving you space and opportunity to let your mind wander to creative, out-of-the-box thinking. Because they’re your own, idea logs are a safe space to explore half-baked thinking and relate your own life experiences to the problem at hand.

Why Idea Log?

The first reason why I love idea logging is because I like having a record to refer back to. Idea logs help you capture thoughts that pop into your head while on a walk, record meetings or conversations for later verification, and create a record of past mistakes so you won’t repeat them.

Additionally, I find idea logs to be one of the best tools for processing thoughts and working through problems. For me, scrawling out thoughts on a blank sheet of paper is an excellent way to jump-start a project that I’ve put off for awhile. Or, if I’ve been talking an idea to death with colleagues, working alone over a notebook is the perfect way to clear my head and move on to fresh thinking.

One Idea Log vs. Many

Some people use one log to capture all of their ideas. The great advantage of this is that with just one notebook, it is easier to carry everywhere, which means you always have it for jotting down moments of brilliance or looking back on. I personally prefer keeping separate notebooks that are specific to a project or subject, so my thoughts are somewhat organized. In order to do this, I usually carry around a stack of post-its so I can move thoughts from whatever I have on hand to where they belong.

Here are some of the types of notebooks I’ve kept:

  • Work Project Idea Logs – these include project planning notes, meeting notes, photos, idea sketches, etc
  • “Life” Notebook – where I map out week plans, gift ideas, menu plans, budgeting, etc
  • Wedding Notebook – a small Moleskine that I can carry to potential wedding vendors to jot down notes, and use to collect DIY inspiration
  • Recipe Notebook – one of the new Moleskine ‘Passion Journals’ for capturing my favorite recipes
  • Sketchbook – blank sheets for drawing & sketching practice
  • Personal Project Log – a large format (11 x 9) sketchbook to capture sewing patterns, graphic design ideas, etc

Best practices for idea logging:

There is no one way to idea log, and everyone has their own idea logging style. But oftentimes forcing yourself to step out of your comfort zone is the way to get to new ideas. This means if you’re the type who thinks through text, force yourself to doodle or sketch frameworks and see where it takes you. Here are some other tips for getting the most out of your idea log:

1. Create conditions for creative thinking
Find a place that is comfortable and free of major distractions, and make sure you have the things on hand that help you think best, like good snacks, music, colored pens, and craft supplies.

2. Quantity yields quality
To get to the good stuff, you need to give yourself enough time to relax: think 45min+. Once you get started, try to go through as many pages as possible, because the point is to get beyond your initial thinking, which will take up the first few pages. If you’re truly an idea log master, you should also be striving to idea log every day, a task that is difficult but not impossible.

3. Leave time to go back and make discoveries
The key takeaways from an idea log session come out in the last ten minutes, when you look back on what you’ve logged and take notes on what you’ve learned. This might take the form of identifying patterns and themes, or simply highlighting the most important stuff. To this end, make sure to write legibly and avoid excessive shorthand so you can understand what you’ve written even after a few days have passed.

4. Capture stream of consciousness (don’t edit yourself)
In order to make implicit leaps and understand subtle nuances within your thoughts, you need to allow yourself to capture your ideas before you’d be ready to share them – in other words, to capture half-baked and wacky thoughts. You also need to give yourself permission to let go of laying out the perfect page, spelling everything correctly, and making it look pretty. If you’re going for style points, you’re probably not allowing yourself to think deeply enough.

5. Give yourself permission to get off-topic
I often find that when I sit down to idea log about a framework, the first thing that pops into my head is something completely unrelated and mundane, like what I need to pick up at the grocery store later. Allow yourself to work through these roadblocks by thinking on them, making a list or otherwise capturing, and moving on. While your goal is to get deep into a topic, you should definitely indulge these distractions, as sometimes the most surprising insights come out of serendipitous explorations.

What are your favorite ways to idea log? Do you have any favorite notebooks or tools for idea logging?

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Lessons from South Park

On Wednesday, I attended a talk at the Innovation Lab by IDEO’s Life Sciences Chief Strategist, Rodrigo Martinez. The talk was put on by a group called ‘Design+’ which hopes to bring more design thinking to the business school through talks and events, something I’m clearly interested in as well.

While much of Rodrigo’s talk was familiar to me (he went over things like how folks at IDEO get inspired, the power of in-depth research over huge quantitative studies, the design process, and the value of cross-disciplinary teams), he and some of the other folks there mentioned a few things in the health space that I definitely want to check out, like the talks from TEDMed last week. But one non-healthcare mention peaked my interest – a student asked if Rodrigo had seen the documentary on the making of a South Park episode called ‘6 Days to Air‘ (he hadn’t). The student wondered if there were similarities between episode-making process of South Park and the project cycle of a design strategy firm. Having watched the documentary, I can tell you there are.

I should caveat by saying that I’m not really a big fan of South Park. I find its jokes crude, usually offensive, and not my style of humor. But I have great respect for creative teams in general, so I put my feelings about the content aside and looked at their creative process. The premise of the documentary, which aired on Comedy Central in October, is that the creators of South Park have just come off a long hiatus working on their Broadway musical, ‘The Book of Mormon’, and now have just six days to create the season-opening episode for South Park. As I watched the team, I was surprised to see that their methodologies and structures are almost identical to those of a design strategy firm.

1.) Create a safe space for ideation

On South Park, the writer’s room is a writers-only conference room where the team gathers to come up with episode ideas. The room’s exclusivity creates a safe space where folks feel comfortable throwing out stupid ideas without being criticized. Moreover, censorship for the sake of network politics is not allowed. Co-creator Matt Stone notes that “for every good idea, there had to be 100 bad ones” so having this space to air them is key to their success.

At most design strategy firms, a similar effort is made to create safe spaces for ideation. Some, like Jump, even create ‘rules for brainstorming’ which include things like: defer judgement, encourage wild ideas, and build on each other. To have a good ideation experience, you don’t need to be invite-only, but you to need to get everyone bought into creating a safe ideation space.

2.) Find inspiration in personal experiences and the world around you

As you watch Matt Stone, Trey Parker, and the other writers brainstorm, you hear them pull in ideas from current events. “What is it with those stupid iTunes terms and conditions, where they want you to scroll through 10 pages of text before you agree? Does anyone actually read that? No? Well, what have we all agreed to exactly?” Just like that, from an annoying moment in one person’s day, a whole episode arc gets created.

Design strategists know that you can get project-defining inspiration from the most unexpected sources. That’s why folks at creative strategy firms are constantly feeding their heads by reading magazines, watching films, talking with people, trying out new technologies, and going on field trips to local stores and museums. One key is to make sure you feed your head with stuff beyond the area your project is focused on. You’re working on a new mobile technology? Why not explore what’s going on in fashion for a day? It’s the unlikely connections that can lead you to the most interesting ideas.

3.) Be versed in prototyping mediums so you can try it as you go

The documentary shows that the entire South Park staff is able to prototype the episode as they create it. Writers hop up to the whiteboard to draw rough sketches of scenes, and animators slip into the characters’ voices to suss out sequences. Whether it’s in a medium core to their background or not, the team members have learned how to prototype in just the right level of fidelity to push their ideas forward.

As a design strategist, you’re encouraged to develop prototyping skills in the same way. Even if you consider yourself more of a strategist than a designer, you should know how to do a quick sketch of an idea to explain it to others. Conversely, your design chops will only get so far if you can’t do some back-of-the-napkin rapid estimation for a ballpark number to value your idea. As a member of a cross-disciplinary team, you need to be able to prototype in all the different disciplines in order to fully realize an idea.

4.) Success depends on how much fun you’re having

As the writing team brainstorms, the rest of the South Park staff casually strolls by the writing room door to check on laughter level. Why? Because the amount of laughter coming from the room is a clear metric for how late the staff can expect to stay. If there’s a lot of laughing, things are on track and they might make it home for bed. When everyone is starting blankly at the wall, you can expect to be there until 5am.

At design strategy firms, the amount of fun team members are having is a key metric to how well the team is working together, and how successful their outputs will be. At Jump, we liked to take breaks throughout the day to play four square on the patio or doodle mutant product ideas. Being silly energized us and allowed our minds to wander, helping us bring fresh perspectives when we got back to work.

5.) Set deadlines to force decisions

After the team has sent the final edit off to the network, co-creator Matt is not happy, and laments that they could have used another day to perfect the episode. He admits, however, that the feeling of not being done is one he has for every episode, and that deadlines are the saving grace of making a show. With an extra week or two, you can second-guess and re-write, but you’re only going to make the show 5% better.

I firmly believe that deadlines are key to the creative process. Whether its setting a deadline for how long you’ll brainstorm (hint: quit while the energy is still high) to when you’ll present in front of an executive team, working towards a time goal creates team energy that is hard to build otherwise. The key is to make the expectations reasonable for the time left (I would argue that South Park fails here, given that the entire team spends the Easter holiday sleeping at the office) by backwards-planning up front and being realistic about how long things take.

South Park may not be for everyone, but their creative team has developed a process that works. These five lessons are ones that any business that’s trying to be more creative can and should follow as it strives to develop new-to-the-world ideas and solutions.

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