Student drawing at Baseline shift creativity and ideation session.

What is creativity?

Baseline shift’s Week 5 event this year, led by James Lloyd (our Part 1 Tutor and Lecturer in Professional Design), gave us an insight into expanding our skills in creativity and ideation. James began by defining these terms.


Put simply it is the process of creating ideas. The notion of process is important here, as it is not always possible to be creative and generate ideas in an instant. It’s OK for things to take time.


Part 1s put forward their ideas of the fundamentals of creativity. These included:

  • Thinking outside the box
  • Using your imagination
  • A process of abnormality
  • Expression
  • Uniqueness

As a matter of fact, the word creativity is not easily or strictly defined. James hates the word ‘creative’ as it can be used ambiguously, for both praise and criticism, and comes loaded with different meaning in different professional contexts. Designers are often described as ‘creatives’ – yet other people can be creative too! Isn’t everyone ‘creative’? Being creative can also affect the way people view you, both positively and negatively. While there are many accepted definitions of creativity, James put emphasis on Margaret Boden’s summary:

‘Creativity is the ability to come up with ideas or artefacts that are new, surprising and valuable.’

James Lloyd

But does our Department believe in creativity?

The definition put forward by Margaret Boden doesn’t easily stack up in relation our projects as students. Our course tends to attract people who value organisation and perhaps even routine. Yet routine can be problematic when your job involves ideation and an obligation to ‘be creative’. Our course focuses heavily on meeting user expectations: which might be seen as a the opposite of being ‘new’ and ‘surprising’. However, creativity really does have value here at Reading, but it needs teasing out.

New: There is certainly room to experiment and bring new things to the table, but the Department likes things to be evidenced, too. In many ways, we’d rather be ‘true’, than ‘new’. So I guess we’re looking for new truths! New technology, language and culture can bring exciting new opportunities for fresh design thinking, too. This means that, despite our strong focus on learning the history of graphic communication, inevitable changes in the world around us mean that standing still is never an option. We should be learning from the past, but applying (and adapting) these lessons to an emerging future.

Surprising: Surprise is great for maintaining a users interest, so it’s entirely in-step with Department thinking. Surprises can be either good or bad. Consider charm vs disgust. Both have a place in a designer’s toolkit.

Valuable: We put a huge focus on the value of our design. Ultimately you should consider if something ‘better’ will be preferable to something that is merely ‘new’. At Reading, ‘valuable’ usually trumps ‘new’.

How ideas happen

There are broadly two ways in which you can generate ideas, grouped using terms borrowed from Geology. The first is Gradualism. Here, your aim is to generate ideas. You have a process and ideas evolve throughout, over time, and in relation to the past. You can learn this. The second is Catastrophism. Here, ideas seemingly come from nowhere. You can’t learn this but you can make your own luck. Perhaps the best ideas come when you are new or unfamiliar with something. Often the debut album is the best album a band ever makes. Particularly when you’re young, it can be easy to mistake an idea that comes from a hidden process for one that has occurred to you in a ‘eureka’ moment. That’s not a problem, but in retrospect it can be easier to see the conditions that might have led you there.

Reverse brainstorming

Reverse brainstorming is a process which may help you to generate ideas in relation to a question. James posed the question: What makes a good student? Reverse it and it becomes: What makes a bad student? Perhaps if you answer this question you will generate ideas you may not have had you answered the original question. This kind of ‘reframing’ can be liberating.

Ideation with constraints

James gave the room a brief to generate ideas for a coffee shop name and logo in groups of three. He imposed different constraints on each group including: no speaking, no seeing, and only using rhymes or puns. The room was then challenged to draw the logos, but using only one tool. The aim of this technique is to ‘reach the unexpected areas in our brain’, therefore affecting our way of thinking in such a way that may lead to higher levels of originality. When designing, if you hit a brick wall, try giving yourself a variety of constraints. Again, the point is to change the angle of approach and force yourself to work a little harder, avoiding the most obvious responses.

‘If we want to be creative, we need to look in unusual places.’

Draw on your arm.
Draw on your arm.
Draw on your hand.
Draw on your hand.
Use only paper.
Use only paper.
Use only post-it notes and a sharpie.
Use only post-it notes and a sharpie.
Use a grid.
Use a grid.

How do we improve our creativity?

A reductive view of creativity is A + B = C,where A and B have never been combined before in a specific context, and where C turns out (by design or accident) to be something new, surprising, and valuable.

In order to better our creativity we need more As and Bs, and more ways of combining them. James stressed the importance of also having awareness of problems and constraints in the world, in order for us, as designers, to be able to see purpose in our ideas. We should be aware of the impact that our ideas can have. We need to live a little, get out there, and know how things work. At the same time, it’s important to recognise that there are an endless number of ways to combine these ‘A’ and ‘B’ inputs. Of course you can just add two things together to create something new, but being more expressive with your language can open up even more options. You can splice, collide, nest, obscure, segment … A large part of creativity is about opening your eyes to everything that’s out there in the world, and imagining endless ways of those things interacting. Every now and again, we’ll hit on something worth holding onto. This plays directly into our design projects as students. The research phase should be robust, and the transformation phase should bring that research together in novel ways.

‘Be citizens of the world.’

It’s common for people to use brainstorming, mind maps, word association techniques or a range of other methods to help with the ideation process. These can all be helpful. But James’ session also stressed the importance of changing other variables in your everyday life, with the aim of boosting your creativity. Change the space that you are in, the people you are with, and the language you speak. Talk to people who don’t think like you.

Crucially, James emphasised that while  everyone is creative, being creative on demand is the challenge for a professional designer. We need to force the process a little and try to engineer situations that draw us out of our most common patterns of thought. Because given the right stimulus and motivation, all of us – buried under layers of prejudice, habit, and doctrine – have the capability for great ideas.

Students’ thoughts

‘Good! It was a very engaging session.’ – Part 1 student

‘Enjoyed the group work and thinking about how we can make things quickly and randomly.’ – Part 1 student