Some people do it in the shower; others in the car. But, no set standards make one thinking spot a better idea generator than another. The only common bond is that your spot must be a place where you feel at ease, where you can relax to a point at which you’re able to put your challenges in proper perspective. Find out where top designers let their minds run wild:
Max Kisman of Max Kisman Studio, San Francisco
Dutch-born Max Kisman was already a household name in the European design arena when he immigrated to California in 1995 to work for HotWired, the online version of Wired magazine. Today, Kisman freelances from his San Francisco studio, exploring the capabilities of desktop television and video for graphic design.
Kisman doesn’t rely too heavily on places beyond his office walls as sources of inspiration, although sometimes concepts spring up as he tools around in his Alfa Romeo Spider or visits nearby Muir Beach and Mount Tamalpais. Still, he says, there’s no predicting whether these activities will motivate ideas. "I’ll probably just get distracted instead," he says.
That’s why his favorite "place of incubation" is, simply, the shower. "A pleasant, warm shower makes me feel relaxed and disengaged," Kisman says. "Unexpected ideas often pop up in this state of contemplation." At least he’s found a spot where he’s not likely to be bothered.
Jack CK Chen of The Museum of Television & Radio, New York City
When you regularly work alongside design legends such as Lou Dorfsman in an environment that showcases the work of the most significant entertainment artists of this century, you’d better be able to keep great ideas coming. That’s the challenge Jack CK Chen faces every day in his role as art director for The Museum of Television & Radio in New York City. Along with special-event graphics and a plethora of print work, Chen merges the look and attitude of the museum’s Web site with Dorfsman’s designs for its printed schedules.
Chen says many of his ideas come to him in visually overloaded settings, particularly those of Chinatown. He frequently mingles his esoteric needs with the pragmatic, inventing solutions for design problems while satisfying his gastronomic cravings. "Inspiration often comes to me from Chinatown’s grocery stands as I’m doing my food shopping," Chen says.
"I find that the contrasts in color, pattern and texture from all the foods found there lead to a wealth of ideas." Chen’s constant companion on these trips is a pack of Post-It Notes. When something sparks an idea, he quickly scrawls it out for later reference.
Joshua Berger of Plazm Media, Portland, OR
Plazm Media is involved in so many types of creative enterprises that ideas have to flow continuously. Plazm Media encompasses a design studio (Plazm Design), a digital foundry (Plazm Fonts) and an experimental arts magazine (Plazm). Partners Joshua Berger, Pete McCracken and Niko Courtelis describe Plazm Media as a small, international cooperative that focuses on "unrestricted creative expression" chronicling "now culture," devoted to the cause of promoting Portland, OR, as a vital creative community. In 1997, the group’s personal undertakings—as well as work for Nike, MTV, Microsoft and Taco Bell—earned Plazm Media a spot on I.D. magazine’s list of top-40 global design innovators.
While Berger doesn’t have a designated thinking spot, he finds that some places are more favorable than others for stimulating ideas-—particularly those where good friends and good beer can be found.
"My creative process is fairly tactile; it only requires a pen and paper," he says. "I have a favorite pub where the noise isn’t too loud to talk over and good beer is served. That’s where I often get ideas. I don’t know how many times I’ve held onto ripped, soiled napkins until I could transfer the ideas to something less ephemeral."
Other places that offer Berger oases for inventive thinking include his home, the Plazm studio (at 2 a.m. or on a weekend when the phone isn’t ringing) or a jet in transit to and from clients in Japan. "There’s nothing like a six-hour flight to get some work done," Berger says.
Detlef Fielder and Daniela Haufe of Cyan, Berlin
Cyan’s work is considered "out there," even by today’s standards, and is highly acclaimed throughout Europe. The studio’s income reflects the nature of its clientele in the cultural sector, like the Bauhaus Museum and the experimental Form + Zweck magazine, offering a high degree of creative freedom in return for a "small to nonexistent" budget.
"The innovators have the ideas, the followers have the cash flow," jokes principal Daniela Haufe. Cyan staffers’ design heroes are the avant-garde artists of the late 1920s and early 1930s because Cyan’s staff relates to the financial hardships these creatives endured and their philosophy that artists can’t separate life from art.
Taking this to heart, Cyan’s tiny Berlin studio also serves as home for Haufe and her partner Detlef Fiedler. Constantly rubbing elbows might have its drawbacks as far as privacy is concerned, but in terms of inventive-ness, the payoff is huge. "Where we get our ideas is less a question of the room, and more of the table, since we have only the one room for everything (cooking, eating, drinking, sleeping, washing and working), but lots of tables," Haufe says.
"One is reserved exclusively for our morning idea-gathering sessions with cappuccino, cigarettes, and peace and quiet. A few weeks ago, we were sitting at the table discussing illustrations for a poetry-book project when we were disturbed by our cleaner vacuuming. This horrible noise gave us the idea of using vacuum cleaners in the book’s illustrations."
Somi Kim, Lisa Nugent, Susan Parr and James W Moore of ReVerb, Los Angeles
The Los Angeles-based design firm ReVerb is known for its outstanding conceptual work involving almost all known types of visual communication, from Web sites and broadcast graphics to every form of print media. The three partners—Somi Kim, Lisa Nugent and Susan Parr, along with senior creative James W Moore—guide their intense collaborative design process by drawing on many forms of inspiration, including people (Tibetan monks; Dutch designer Willem Sandberg, who made his mark right after World War II; and their own contemporary, Zuzana Licko), places (Japan, the Netherlands, New York City and Los Angeles) and things (books, movies, music and food). But while their designs might result from collaboration, each artist has a favorite thinking spot.
Somi Kim’s ideas often come during early morning walks. "Every day, I get up at 5:50 a.m. and go to Griffith Park with my dog, Stella Tulip," she says. "Our hike takes us to a ridge overlooking both the Los Angeles basin, edged by the Pacific Ocean, and the Glendale/Valley side. The view is spectacular, even when the smog line is pronounced, and the changing light, flora and fauna—including eccentric park regulars—are an important reflection of the systems and juxtapositions that permeate much of our work."
As a child, native Californian Lisa Nugent learned the art of "car thinking" (and, undoubtedly, patience) sitting in the backseat of her parents’ vehicle during family roadtrips. "Today, the drive has evolved into a ritual, offering uninterrupted time to think about whatever comes to mind," she says. "Car thinking can result in great insights, unexpected flashes of wisdom and can often simply put things into perspective."
James W Moore takes his "food for thought" literally. "Every day between 3 and 4 p.m., I take a break from our hectic work schedule and walk to a nearby drugstore for my midafternoon fix of M&Ms—yellow bag, usually king size," he says. "This allows me a moment to clear my mind from the bustling studio activity by focusing on the sweeter things, like little chocolate-covered peanuts with candy-coated shells—dark brown, red, orange, yellow, green and blue—colors that complement each other extremely well." And by the time he’s returned to the studio, any mental blocks impeding his creativity have melted away.
Susan Parr goes shopping for ideas. "Whenever I can, I go looking for whatever catches my eye," she says. "Random associations and relevant connections often pop up while I’m just browsing or scanning, whether it’s at a garden shop, near the newsstand or just people-watching." The trick, she adds, is to have no expectations. "Not predefining what I’m looking for allows me to know it when I see it.’ Better yet, it just clears my mind. It’s amazing how the quiet idea, the simple twist or some-thing that’s right under one’s nose can become or inspire the ‘big insight.’"