Quite where the odd words spring from that kick off a thread is a mystery to me. The just tend to appear when I’m doing mindless chores or really late at night (in which case I need to write them down – in case I forget. It must have been important, why else would it jostle to foreground?)

I know this method (is it a ‘method’? Habit? Lack of self-discipline to stick to the task on hand?) of not thinking about something to arrive at an answer (in my case, can I keep this typing up?) isn’t unusual.

Lots of advice I remember being given was the best way to tackle a hard problem can be to panic about what you’re being asked to do… then not think about it. Let the washing-machine of your mind give it a good, routine, chore-like spin.

It seems to work (as a kind of ‘anti-method) for the mathematician June Huh, who was just awarded math’s highest honour – the Fields Medal – for a whole bunch of stuff about cohomology rings (me neither. But in Huh’s hands, graphs aren’t just graphs either.)

He spends about three hours a day (his admission) thinking really hard about problems, then just lets them sit. While he gets on with “repetitive, mindless activities like cleaning, dishwashing and the physical act of transcribing what he reads into a notebook” or what we’d call getting on with life.

What happens in the meantime is not some flash of inspiration – Huh describes it so ““at some point, you just realise, oh, I know this.”

His work, especially in his field, is undeniably iterative. You keep working at the problem – often with someone else’s starting point, and you pick away at making it ‘more beautiful’. Or simpler, better, undoubtably more useful to the next person who picks it up.

Iteration is a big thing in the UX world. Likewise in packaging, identity, almost all aspects of design, right across the spectrum. And it can be hard having to make something from something someone else has already started. Where’s the creativity in that, where’s the origination? Where’s the art?

But then, when we have creative carte blanche (well, or appear to. It’s a bit of a mirage isn’t it?), why do we start by imitating? And don’t tell me you don’t dial into Pinterest when you start a project? You might kid yourself it’s for ‘inspiration’, but we know…

Maybe next time, try this? Take what’s already there, take the brief, really look closely at it from every angle and then spend a few days not thinking about it. Don’t commit anything to paper or Illustrator. Let your mind run the iterations and see where you end up.

I’ll bet you knew the answer all along. And you can honestly say it’s ‘all my own work”.

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About Richard Hill

Creative director, writer, designer, illustrator based in the UK with global project experience and consulting skills across sectors.

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