We’ve all had times when we stare at a blank piece of paper and will ourselves to be clever and creative and we get nothing but a headache out of the deal.
“I’m not God!” you say. Our Lord does creatio ex nihilo – (creation from nothing) I don’t. You’re not alone, we’ve all felt like liars forging ahead and trying to create interest for a story we don’t “get.”
But, for magazine designers the number one driver of design is story. Designers get the rare privilege of making someone else’s world view into visual reality. Thus, the notion of letting the text speak for itself should be our first love … one of our core design commitments. The best visual promise you can make for a story is the passion that already exists inside the story.
Yeah but…
“You don’t design for the ______ industry!” “It’s boring!” I’m not talking about every story being interesting to every person. It’s true that good design is a lot easier when the author’s passion for the subject is obvious. And, if the piece inspires you, that’s the best. If the piece doesn’t inspire but at least lets you know why the author feels inspired it still works. The only time the whole process really feels dead is when someone is just phoning it in.
So, if you feel that the story is substandard, are you allowed to just swerve into “catty?” Crank out another version of “the usual?” No. You ask for help. Your editor picked this story and it could be there’s something you really don’t get…we all need help from time to time.
I was privileged this year to hear a talk by Rick Pullen, editor in chief of Leader’s Edge. You wouldn’t think that a magazine for “commercial insurance and group benefits distribution” would be all that amazing a design opportunity, but every year for the past several years Leader’s Edge has been an award-winning magazine in editorial, design, and general excellence in the area of “insurance journalism.” Clearly they haven’t given in to the notion of “Insurance is boring.”
So, “HOW” do you actually get creative? There are entire books on the subject but here’s a technique that has worked for me to help me find the passion.
The first five rules are

  1. read it,
  2. read it,
  3. read it,
  4. read it and
  5. read it. You can’t design well if you don’t understand the article in a simple way. “This story is about ______.”
  6. Play with your pen (or a crayon … or a dirty bird feather…your choice). Circle the actions, the descriptions, the things that stand out.
  7. Then relax and pick your top five favorites and run a word association on each (synonyms, antonyms, simile’s, metaphors etc). No wrong answers here.
  8. Draw pictures. LOTS of pictures, sketches, arrows, puzzles all based on something you’ve circled.
  9. Pick the most interesting and develop them into some tighter thumbnails. Do this until you feel you’re making some progress.

Now, put away your pride, and put your ideas in front of your collaborators. Pick collaborators carefully as not everybody is fun or imaginative during the invention phase.
Sometimes your collaborators will like what you’ve come up with and laud your creativity. Sometimes they’ll suggest a whole different direction. Never fear, I can’t tell you how many times rejected ideas from one project end up being the darlings of another project.
What if they hate it … all of it? Every idea!?
Listen to the critiques. If your customer doesn’t like it, there must be a reason. And remember, the customer ISN’T ALWAYS RIGHT…but they’re still the customer. They have to live with your solution as their solution. Since they have to own it, they should have a voice.
Then, do it again. You’re a professional and banging away through multiple ideas and possibilities is why they pay you the big bucks.
Give the method a try. If if works for you give me a like or leave a comment. If you’ve got something better, tell me how you approach the creative bridge and answer the question, “What is your favorite color?”