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Creative Process Q&A: Matt Desmier

Creativity & Innovation

mattdesmierUnder the guise of Wise Old Uncle, Matt Desmier does many things.  He founded Silicon Beach – a digital innovation conference which attracts renowned thought leaders to Bournemouth for two days each Autumn; he helps small creative agencies grow through advice and mentorship; and he works with public sector organisations too, helping them understand the creative economy.

Do you follow a creative process?

I don’t know if I’d be so bold as to call it a process, but I’ve definitely noticed a series of things that all tend to happen when I’m being “creative”…

Generally it starts with a scribble.  A quick scribble that tries to capture the initial idea that’s popped into my head, sparked by something I’ve seen, read or heard.  Invariably this scribble gets lost as I go back to whatever I was doing beforehand and so when I find it again, stage two is to try to decode what I’ve written whilst trying to remember why I thought it was a good idea in the first place.  Then I refine and develop the idea…

But I guess that’s the accepted creative process (as outlined in the 1965 classic “A Technique for Producing Ideas”): seek inspiration, forget about it, come back and iteratively refine, prototyping and test it and then refine it some more!

Do you use any tricks or techniques to come up with ideas?

Yeah, other people!  By that I mean: I don’t think ideas just happen or at least they don’t happen in isolation.  I try and immerse myself in “stuff” all day, every day.  I’m a vociferous reader and I read constantly – books, magazines, blogs, online, offline, whatever, wherever – and this is all stuff someone else has written.  Because, in the main, new ideas these days are simply iterative improvements on, or the repurposing of, existing ideas.  Sir Isaac Newton is purported to have said “I have seen further by standing on the shoulders of giants.” And that seems like a pretty good endorsement to me!

What’s the best idea you’ve had recently? Tell us where you were, what you were doing, where you found inspiration.

I have ideas every day, but the best ideas evolve over time and are rarely the result of a “Eureka!” moment, so for this reason I couldn’t tell you a good idea I had recently.  For instance, two of the projects I’m about to “launch” imminently have been developing iteratively over the past three years as I’ve slowly pieced together elements from other “ideas”.  I can’t remember when I started thinking about them but they were both inspired by problems someone else was moaning about and the solutions I’ve arrived at are mash-ups of existing products and services, most likely developed by someone else! Like I said, other people are a handy resource!

How do you develop your ideas?

I tend to write a lot.  I have countless Field Notes and Moleskines full of barely legible scribbles; Post-It notes and scraps of paper – the proverbial back of a fag packet – with doodles and process maps sketched out on them.  I’ve also found a great tool called Artefact Cards and I use these a lot.

About this time I’m likely to start developing a big list of questions too – who, how, why, what, when, etc.  And as I write the answers, or my initial perception of the answer, more questions appear and more scribbles are made on whatever surface presents itself.

I ran a very successful business incubator for nearly five years and one of the qualifying criteria for all applicants was a requirement to write the idea down, in the form of a business plan, that someone else could read and understand without the author being there.  If forces the author to analyse every aspect of their idea and it’s a discipline I still adhere to.

Do you get any feedback or test your ideas on anyone? Who do you ask?

I constantly seek feedback on any idea I’m developing and I ask everybody.  My perspective on any issue is just that, my perspective.  I can try and put myself in someone else’s shoes, trying to imagine the idea through their lens, but generally it’s just easier to ask.  And besides if it’s a project I’m working on, I’m immersed in it, I’m at the centre of the maelstrom and I will miss things that other people will see.

What is the hardest part of developing an idea?

I find that the hardest part of developing an idea is finding the time to invest in doing the development.  A lot of the time, if it’s not a client-based project, the idea will be just a thought and you’ve got to find the time to turn it into something more than that.  Without specific time set aside to develop that idea, it’ll stay as just that: an idea.  Anyone can have ideas, the real creativity is bringing those ideas to life.

Tell us about an idea of yours that didn’t work. What happened?

The incubation process that my ideas tend to go through, the writing and re-writing, iterative developments and test phases, etc; tend to either weed out any ideas that don’t or won’t work, or it moulds them into ideas that do or will work.

What’s the biggest challenge facing creative people?

This is kind of a difficult question because by their nature, challenges are what fuels creative people – so the bigger the challenge, the more creative they can be!

But from a less esoteric viewpoint, I think one of the biggest challenges facing creative people or creative businesses, particularly small-ish ones, is having their creativity valued – and by valued I mean paid for.  For instance, I was approached last year by a start-up (who’d received considerable funding), to help them launch their product.  We had a few meetings, sizing each other up, and during one meeting I proffered an idea about how we might launch them.  They agreed to buy my services but then felt that as the cost to deliver the campaign appeared relatively high, to them at least, they felt they shouldn’t have to pay for the research needed in order to develop the idea.  They were only focusing on the outputs and didn’t value the creative process.*

*We didn’t end up working together and as far as I know the product is still yet to launch.

Who is the most creative person you know?

My kids.  As irritating an answer as that is, I have two sons and they both demonstrate two of the key attributes creative people need – an inquisitive mind and an ability to play.  Children are naturally curious and spend every-waking moment learning.  The entire world is an unknown quantity to them that they’re constantly trying to make sense of.  So they’ll see something, instinctively have an idea about it and formulate an approach to solve it.  They’ll test that idea and if it doesn’t work they’ll refine it, test it again, refine it some more, etc.

And everything is play to them.  They don’t care about failing, they don’t know what failing is.  They’re not bound by the constraints of society or peer-pressure.  So they get to adopt new personas at will – perhaps a superhero, a dinosaur, an explorer, a car, etc.  They make-believe a situation and then they fully immerse themselves in it.  And by doing that they solve problems and learn.

Who should we ask these questions to next? Why?

Simon Gough and Phillippa Rose of Redfront.  They’re an Exeter-ish based service design consultancy who are constantly involved in numerous really projects – some ideas they’re developing themselves and others are them problem-solving for clients…

Or Jim Coudal from the Chicago-based Coudal Studio….

Or Tim Malbon from London-based Made by Many

Or Matt Mills from ustwo

Or Dave Birss…  The list is virtually endless

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