What's Behind Creativity: A Designer's Unique Process to Finding That Breakthrough

What's Behind Creativity: A Designer's Unique Process to Finding That Breakthrough

Creativity — most would agree that it’s such a broad concept.

To give you a better understanding of this topic, let’s first try to define it. If we look at the definition of the word “creativity” provided by the Cambridge Dictionary, it means “the ability to produce original and unusual ideas, or to make something new or imaginative”

Another definition given by Robert E. Franken in Human Motivation defines creativity as: “the tendency to generate or recognize ideas, alternatives, or possibilities that may be useful in solving problems, communicating with others, and entertaining ourselves and others”

The last one seems more accurate and somehow reflects the process of innovation, doesn’t it? I actually like these two definitions as, from my perspective, they cover the full spectrum of what creativity is from two different lenses: one which is more “down to earth” and pragmatic (Robert E. Franken), and the other which is more aspirational (Cambridge Dictionary).

There are many ways you can possibly describe it, in fact, you’ve likely been ‘creative’ at some point in your life. Perhaps you’ve discovered an answer to a difficult problem. Maybe you’ve found a new way to interpret a data set. Now that we have something concrete, it begs the question: Where exactly does it all come from?


A Journey Into Creativity

As a designer and video specialist in my current job, my daily tasks entails creating design assets and marketing collaterals. They can be in the form of videos, posters, animations, and even 3D models. Naturally, this is a day-to-day challenge that I need to succeed in as I am required to produce new things with new ideas, avoiding as much as possible to reuse anything that I created previously.

So, here’s my current problem: how can I generate new ideas that can be translated into appealing graphics every day?

In this blog post, I will be sharing my own definition of creativity and explain what it means to be creative. I will also talk about my creative process, how it has helped me both at work and in my personal life, and more importantly, how this simple guide can be applied to your own projects — be it a design, a written piece, a campaign, an application or even an intended solution.

Before I delve any deeper, I would like to emphasise that this article is based on my personal observations and experiences. Your creative process may differ from mine but I hope that by giving you insights into how I create, you will be inspired and develop your own ways to be creative. Let’s begin!


Talent Is Useful, But It Is Not Everything

When we talk about creativity, we also need to talk about talent. Why is that? Just look at Beethoven and Van Gogh — it seems like they were able to create incredible things out of nothing while others struggle to do so.

Of course, we are all not equal when it comes to talent. Some people are more talented than others, and that may give them the slightest edge over others who don’t share the same aptitude. Some of the most influential creators of our time were very talented individuals, that’s a fact, but let’s not forget the amount of work and time they have had to put in to cement that legacy. I believe that talent can be nourished, which in turn makes us more creative as a byproduct of working hard and being curious. Additionally, their ideas had to come from somewhere. This reminds me of a vignette.

Did you know that Beethoven was super inspired by the natural environment? He used to go for long walks in the suburbs of Vienna to breathe the fresh air of the countryside and see all the trees and forest animals. He even wrote a Symphony (the number 6) which is called the “Pastoral” symphony, an ode to nature. Each part of this symphony reflects his feelings of how he could be musically represented as the shepherd in a field or a storm in the middle of the afternoon.

During the composition, he used a variety of evocative musical techniques to give listeners the same feeling of being surrounded in nature. There are many historical examples in classical music, especially during the baroque period, where composers took inspiration from different stories or events happening around them. Monteverdi or Bach were also very famous for this, and similarly, they too found inspiration from various sources.


Inspiration Is The Key

To me, creativity can be defined as the action of finding inspiration from numerous sources and then turning this inspiration into ideas. Drawing inspiration from different sources doesn’t mean that you copy what others do, which is the exact opposite of what creativity is about. It actually kills creativity and trains people to be lazy. This is not what we want.

Inspiration also tends to be an abstract and complicated concept to a lot of people. It is even a struggle for some of my friends and colleagues who work in the creative industry. Oftentimes, they would complain by saying: ”I’m not creative enough, I don’t have this gift of being creative”. But really, what does this mean? Creativity or inspiration are not gifts — this is not something you were born with. As mentioned, even Beethoven or Van Gogh needed to nurture their creativity with inspiration. Even famous architects like Le Corbusier or Jean Nouvel and celebrated designers like Charles Eames or Philippe Starck needed to look for new and inventive ways to surprise people.

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Can Creativity Be Taught?

In a Psychology Today article on the neuroscience of creativity, studies have suggested “that creativity is both a result of genetics and experience — the latter suggesting that everyone has the potential to become more creative and one does not trump the other.”

It continues:

But for every study on the brain’s link to creativity, there’s another on how psychology, and not just physiology, helps wire the brain for creative expression. Studies of children, in particular, show that watching someone else be creative, viewing a fantasy film and unstructured play encourages new insights, analytical thinking, and creativity.

Cultivating creativity doesn’t have to be done exclusively in childhood, however. Additional studies suggest that habits, like writing down new ideas, trying new things and regularly learning on unfamiliar subjects, can help foster creativity.

What this implies is that, in the modern context, finding inspiration is exactly the same thing as looking at your favourite thinkers, tinkerers, doers, and even competitors, and understanding what triggers they activate to generate such results. I would say it’s more related to analysis and uncovering hidden opportunities rather than observing random things and finding solutions out of the blue.

Inspiration is the key to unlocking your creativity. If someone tasks you with finding a solution to a problem, what steps would you take to achieve your goal? Or what if you want to pick up a new hobby tomorrow which involves creating something from scratch, once again, how would you start?


A Simple Guide To Develop Your Creativity

Without further ado — this is my creative process. You may choose to skip some steps but this is not something I would recommend. Going through each step will help you determine empirically how you’re evolving based on what you observe, what you experiment, and what you achieved.

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1. Find an idea

Everyone has ideas. Imagine a design brief with this one liner: “The sky is blue and the sun is yellow”, what comes into your head? Are you picturing a landscape? Perhaps even a beautiful memory of your vacation time spent down by the beach under the glorious sun in Thailand.

You see, in a few sentences, what began from a basic abstract liner has now morphed into something more tangible. This is your idea — an ideation step in a design process. As you generate more and more ideas, you’ll be able to decide on the best one and develop it further.

2. Research & find inspiration

When you select your idea, develop it. How? Inspiration. You need to find some references and some examples of people who have recreated this scene. Next, gather what you have and start doodling some sketches. You might not be good at drawing but that’s perfectly fine! If you have a clear idea in your mind, try to sketch it as accurately as possible. Experiment with raw sketches and focus on the key elements that you want to incorporate.

3. Prototype more accurately

As soon as you have all your ideas on paper, you will have a clearer vision of your final result. Now it’s time to start drawing more accurately. This is probably the trickiest and most sensitive part of the process as it will influence the rest of your design. Take your time here — erase if necessary, draw again, repeat. Finally, you should end up with a final sketch that closely resembles your final deliverable.

4. Start & iterate

Start designing. Whether it is on Photoshop, After Effects or Blender 3D, try to recreate what you have doodled. If something doesn’t look right, go back to step 2 and 3. This step can last a few hours and even a few weeks. When I designed the “Chateau of Chenonbord” (see below in the article), it took me 3 weeks to complete this step as I thought of many new ideas while I was perfecting my design.

5. Polish with details

This brings us to the last step — make it your own. The beauty is in the details. The slightest motifs can bring a lot of value (and satisfaction) to your design. More importantly, it will set it apart from anyone else’s. It’s only through this kind of details where people can really measure your commitment. But of course, it also has to align with the brief or the initial demand.

Now that I have introduced you to my creative process, let’s see it in action. Here are 3 case studies I would like to share with you:


My Creative Process In Action

Maya Bot Video — A Video Animation

As part of our PALO IT data transformation initiative, my team and I recently worked on and released an animated video about a simple chatbot, introducing its features and how it worked.

1. Find an idea

We brainstormed this idea of creating a minimalist and animated artificial object which doesn’t have a human face.

2. Research & find inspiration

We started to focus our inspiration on a few things. But our two main inspirations were from the movie Her, and the minimalist style of Apple’s Siri. Although these references served as our direction for the design, we also explored numerous sources to also understand how other brands leveraged the visual identity of AI and chatbots. We looked at Cortana from Microsoft, Google Assistant, and Alexa from Amazon. The main point we derived from our research was that all these brands used a circle, or a series of dots, to illustrate a bot.

Of course, using the circle shape is not a random choice. It has an important meaning as it usually represents protection (the belly of the mother where the baby grows), perfection, inclusivity (the circle of relationships), and infinity (as it has no ending).

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3. Prototype more accurately

We started to sketch out our storyboard based on what we envisioned for this video animation.

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4. Start & iterate

As a fourth step, I continued working on the design more precisely on Illustrator. As previously mentioned, this step is tricky and sensitive as it will influence the rest of the process. That being said, it’s a very helpful step which allows you to reuse all the things you created for the next step.

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5. Polish with details

Add details and refine them along the way. By combining these two sources of inspiration, we came up with the following animation.


2. "Le Chateau de Chenonbord"

Step 1: Find an idea

My initial idea was to create a 3D model of a castle, but I couldn’t think of something unique. So instead of designing elements from scratch, I thought of mixing several architectural styles and buildings.

Step 2: Research & find inspiration

I decided to combine two famous French castles: Le Château de Chambord (left) and Le Château de Chenonceau (right), which you can see below.

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Additionally, I wanted to give my castle a 19th century touch by blending in the architecture of a famous shopping mall in Paris called Le Printemps, specifically the rotunda roof which is shown below.

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Once I decided on these three elements, I started to sketch out some elements such as the facade, windows, and moulding.

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Step 3: Prototype more accurately

Next, I sketched out a 2D design of my castle by incorporating these elements. I also drew a top view (top right corner) to better understand how they all fit together.

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Step 4: Start & iterate

Using Blender, I started modelling each element. One of the most difficult tasks of the entire structure was putting together the circumference of “houses” around the castle, which required me to duplicate each part 58 times!

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Step 5: Polish with details

I added some special elements such as the pier and boat to make the model stand out.

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3. "Lion's City St - The Shophouse"

Step 1: Find an idea

In this final case study, I wanted to create a 3D model of a shophouse as a tribute to Singapore’s rich history. Similar to my castle, I wanted to incorporate surreal elements while also keeping it grounded in reality.

Step 2: Research & find inspiration

Naturally, I found inspiration in the multi-coloured shophouses along Amoy Street. Then came the sketching part — I tried to reproduce as accurately as possible some of the important elements I saw.

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Step 3: Prototype more accurately

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Step 4: Start & iterate

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Step 5: Polish with details

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How Creativity Transcends Design

Although my approach and focus is more design-centric, you will find that it can be adapted to any situation. From firstly finding an idea and looking at some references to prototyping and final embellishments, this creative process can be applicable and useful in many other ways as well.

For instance, if you were an app developer looking to create a brand new shopping experience on mobile phones — where would you look for inspiration? Shopee? Lazada? Amazon? What are the features that you want to enhance or modify? How can you make it the first of its kind?

Or perhaps you could be a marketer looking to launch your next big campaign — was there something someone had done previously that you admired? How did it resonate with you and how could you recapture the same feelings while also improving on it?

These are some of the key questions to think about before you get your hands dirty, but the valuable takeaway I want to leave with you today is to stay consistent to what others are doing, before bringing in your own added value.

Last but not least, my creative process is not intended to replace any other existing frameworks you find useful, but instead complement them so that you can unleash your creativity to the fullest when it comes to creating new things.


Conclusion

The creative process I introduced you in this article is a step by step process of what you should do when it comes to creating something, stemming from an amalgamation of research and your own ideas. We can easily trace the creative journey from start to finish and understand how it all came about. And that for me is the most valuable part of a product or solution: the stories behind them.

Always remember that creativity is not something that you have or don’t have — it is something you need to work on every day. You can find inspiration anywhere you look, be it on Instagram, Behance, Dribbble, and Pinterest, or on the street by observing people and the environment around you. It can even come from a conversation with your friends or colleagues, or a trip to an exhibition or your local museum.

Don’t forget to ask yourself questions. A lot of questions. Everything can be inspiring and thought-provoking. Creative ideas will emerge when you start questioning and wondering why things are like this, and this spark is what you need to go forth and create more impactful products and solutions that evoke many meanings and emotions.

Sources:
1 Cambridge Dictionary online, Creativity definition.
2 Robert E. FRANKEN, Human Motivation, 3rd ed., 1982
3 George LAND and Beth JARMAN, Breaking Point and Beyond. San Francisco: HarperBusiness, 1993
4 Hillary GRIGONIS, The Science of Creativity: What Happens In Your Brain When You Create, Creativelive.com, 2018

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