How to Generate Good Ideas

learn where good ideas come from

This spring, we set out to answer the question “Where do good ideas come from?” in the form of a motion graphic that would serve as a companion piece for a course we developed for Columbia University’s graduate program in Information and Knowledge Strategy (Visualization of Information). We quickly realized that perhaps we needed to reevaluate the basis of this question before we answered it.

The notion that good ideas simply come to people out of the blue didn’t satisfy us because it didn’t give adequate credit to the creative enterprise of the individual or group. Good ideas aren’t simply lying around like seashells on a beach waiting for us to pick them up, nor are they so random.We determined the better question to ask was “How are good ideas generated?” Good ideas—as we suggest in this video—are the result of the focused action that takes place in our brains. What better metaphor for this focus, we thought, than a prism? With a bit of stretching the laws of physics and a lot of imagination, we set out to craft a story about how all those bits and pieces that pass through our brains can become good ideas.

Throughout the process, we were constantly made aware of the parallels between our own creative efforts to make this piece the best it could be and the subject matter itself, which is ultimately a guide to aiding creativity. In this way, the piece is a testament to how we operate as a creative group.

Once we had a script we were happy with, it was time to figure out how to most effectively visualize ideation. We had decided early on to move away from the clichéd and simplistic representation of a good idea as a light bulb that goes off in one’s head. This meant creating a new, abstract visual vocabulary for the creation of good ideas.

Because many of the concepts addressed in the piece are intangible until put into practice, coming up with visual representations was particularly challenging. We decided on simple geometric shapes and lines within a colorful landscape that would open the piece up for individual interpretation. We had to build out the unseen world in which various operations would be taking place.

The myriad actions performed by our “prism” demanded kinetic action. Our goal was to create a sense of organized chaos. This proved to be true both in the end product and the process itself. During the art phase, we had to create far more frames than usual—almost 160—for the storyboard just to show the transitions and movement and to make sure these actions were clear to everyone involved. On top of this, every single item was manipulated within After Effects, resulting in dozens, sometimes hundreds of layers on screen and animated at any given time.

In the end, the visuals function in a similar fashion to the human brain. At any second, countless things are being processed, yet it manages to keep the chaos in check. We sought to depict the complex process of coming up with a good idea in a fresh way that was clear, visually engaging, and had practical value for viewers.

For more on how the team at Column Five generates good ideas, check out our book, Infographics: The Power of Visual Storytelling.

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