Develop Ideas Worth Communicating

by Mackenzie Brookshire    June 24, 2013

What's your process for conceiving and nurturing ideas?


It’s a question I’ve been asking myself lately. In his book Experiences In Visual Thinking, Robert McKim defines a graphic ideation process that utilizes two basic modes: exploratory (seeing, imagining and drawing) and developmental (testing, evaluation and refining). He gives this cyclic “feedback loop” the acronym ETC (Express, Test, Cycle). In my own personal quest for pinning down a process that allows me to be more intentional in my decision-making and sorting through ideas, I found this very interesting. I have summarized ETC below, but also highly recommend this book for anyone who wants to expand their understanding of visual thinking in general. It is intense and awesome.

Step 1: Express (4 basic principles)
1. Fluency and Flexibility of Ideation

  • Fluency is quantity, not quality or originality. Generate a series of thumbnail sketches and set a goal of something like 30 sketches in 60 minutes.
  • Flexible ideation flows from the thinker who expresses diverse ideas – the measurement of flexibility is variety.

2. Deferred Judgement

  • Attempting to express and judge ideas simultaneously is like trying to drive a car with one foot on the accelerator and the other on the brake. Reserve criticism whether in a group or alone with your sketchbook.
  • Keep a tally of every time you find yourself judging an idea while brainstorming. You will get better at this the more you are aware of your own tendency to judge while attempting to express.

3. Unhesitating Response

  • Quick and spontaneous release of idea into sketch is especially important in idea-expression. Get them out of you and into sketch form as quickly as possible.
  • Keep an idea log – this can be a sketchbook, individual sheets (which can be especially helpful in the comparing stage) or scrolls of papers. Keep it with you and ready to release ideas onto without hesitation as they come. 

4. Skill in Drawing

  • Inability to represent an idea can evoke judgemental processes that restrict idea flow, or can be lost alltogether if not adequately represented in sketch form. Attention diverted to problems of drawing is attention diverted from idea-generation. Practice! 
  • Find drawing materials that you enjoy using and don’t allow you to get frustrated. Take the time to find a pen that flows the way you like it instead of struggling with the crappy one you just found on your desk. If it feels more natural to sketch on the computer, do that. 

Step 2: Test

1. Display Your Ideas

  • See your sketches fully and imaginatively. Place them on a wall or a table – anywhere that allows you to step back for an overview.
  • Move from the viewpoint of creator to critic. Imagine yourself as a constructive critical person who is seeing these sketches for the first time.

2. Compare and Note

  • Compare ideas to each other and in relation to criteria for the problem at hand.
  • Physically group and regroup the sketches to facilitate comparison and “bucketing”.
  • Make written notes (try using a different color for these) to catch the essence of each evaluation. The act of putting your evaluations in writing reinforces a critical viewpoint and makes sure you don’t forget anything you learned.

3. Formulate Criteria

  • Review criteria and try to state them more exactly. Is this or that criteria as important as you thought it was? Have you overlooked important criteria…is something missing?
  • Put your new understanding of problem-criteria in writing for your next round of ETC.

Step 3: Cycle

  • Return to the idea-expression phase with an idea-generating strategy in mind. Be deliberate. For example, focusing in detail on one idea is one example of an idea-generating strategy, and opting to generate more ideas before drilling down deeper is another. 
  • Remember the principle of deferred judgement. Don’t judge whether your strategy is working, focus your attention on idea generation. You will have the opportunity to asses the value of your chosen strategy in the next Test phase. 

And there you have it! The three steps to ETC.  I hope you found this little piece of Experiences In Visual Thinking as helpful and interesting as I did. Have a great Monday.

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