After I get out my pencil and sketchbook and get ready to start a project, the first thing I do is write. I write down as much as I can about the project and things related to it – people, places, things, nouns, verbs, adjectives – everything. This gives all of my ideas a place to begin. Whether it’s a branding project, a conceptual illustration or an ad campaign, starting this way allows me to find connections that I wouldn’t have seen any other way.
With such a fertile breeding ground, ideas have a place to thrive. It’s usually not long before the next few blank pages are full of scribbles, layouts, rough plans and all kinds of other ideas. The next step is to hone down a few of these ideas, decide what’s worth exploring further, and leave the rest behind in the quest for the final solution.
Three years ago, after reading an article by author Steven Johnson, I added a step to my process. Before throwing out all the ideas that don’t quite make it, I salvage the ones that might serve some other purpose down the road, and tuck them away in a list that Johnson calls the Spark File.
Steven Johnson is an author and wrote his article on the Spark File with a focus on writing, but his general idea can be applied to any form of creation. The concept he proposes is simple: in an active document, keep a chronological list of your ideas, and come back to it whenever you feel the urge. There is no need for formatting or context, just a free-flowing stream of ideas and concepts. Mine is full of all kinds of half-baked ideas and hunches – everything from creative billboard concepts, descriptions of things I’d like to draw, a premise for a graphic novel that I’ll probably never write, even names for a hypothetical band, should I ever actually learn an instrument.
The two most important practices to consider in regards to the Spark File are to always write down an idea if you think it’s worthy, no matter how wacky it might seem, and to come back to your file every once in a while. Sometimes I’ll reread my list and come across something I wrote months before and immediately remember why it never went anywhere. But more often than not, there is something in there that has the potential to ignite a much-needed spark.
When coming up with ideas for a project, spit-balling with a group of people can have its benefits, but sometimes you don’t need anyone other than yourself to come up with something worthwhile; as Johnson says in his article, reading through all the old bits and pieces of ideas in your Spark File “feels a bit like you are brainstorming with past versions of yourself.”