Sometimes I have too many ideas. The problem becomes: which ideas might pan out, and how do they interrelate? But for most, it's more a question of: where do ideas come from? Let's talk about the various places.
Spontaneous Head Combustion
Sometimes an idea just pops into your head. I think this is because brains are always processing in the background. I had a calculus teacher in high school, Mr. Pearson, who said that the solution to a particular differential equation he had been working on would sometimes come to him while shaving.
Though that was a fairly nerdy thing to say, he wasn't far off my point.
The process of spontaneous idea generation is related to why we dream: the brain always wants to exercise in periods of disuse. When shaving or driving, your brain is not fully engaged. This means there are cycles that can be put to use. We will return to this later. But some people dream in ways that are connected to stuff they are working on. During my most productive periods when I get a cool idea and then rush to implement it (especially a very complex one that will probably take several days of constant work) I am told that I sometimes talk in my sleep: I'm mumbling variables and data structures. This definitely happened to me when I was working on Mosaics in Painter.
Hmm. Maybe I work too much!
But a simple way to use this is to think about a problem before you go to sleep, and your mind may come up with a solution while you sleep. In fact, I used to listen to music in my head right when I was going to sleep. I liked to listen to Beethoven's 9th Symphony in this state. Not really listening, per se. Actually just hearing it in my mind, every note and phrase. It was great practice for musical composition.
Sketch It Up
I like to sketch things out, and get ideas that way too. I guess it's because I'm a visual person. But, for me, lots of graphical ideas work themselves out on paper. A doodle can quickly become something larger.
I was working on borders and corners one day when I realized, as many people have, that you could represent the corners as four image pieces and the edges as another four image pieces. And the edges could be stretched or repeated. So I drew one of my favorite things, and I have reproduced it at left. I suppose it's a good example of three-dimensional thinking.
I draw in guide lines that showed the corner pieces and the edge pieces succinctly. Then I realized that these corners and edges could be filled with pretty much any image.
So i drew cylinders with pipes interconnecting them, like you see at right here. I realized that even shadows could be part of these clipped images. Note: this 3 x 3 partitioning is used to create buttons and other UI elements, also. In fact, that was what I was using it for at the time.
But I didn't want the UI to be constrained to be a rectangle. No matter! These pieces will still work, as long as all the corners are squarish. For instance:
At right, I have shown something that can be made out of the usual eight pieces, just rearranged in a different fashion from the typical arrangement I have shown so far.
This goes to show that it doesn't matter how you design it. If you take a little care, that design can service a much larger class of objects.
This design really hinged on two things: the corners and the edges. So I concentrated on the corners. What could the corner possibly be? A number of three-dimensional things popped into my head, and I sketched them up.
Here are a number of possibilities that occurred to me, drawn as corners. To left: a gabled approach that exhibits shading and has pyramidal corners. To right: that same approach, but with different edges. The edges can have their own articulations as well. There are plenty of three-dimensional things that can grace the corner of a design.
Here, I explore the use of cubes and balls. To right I considered using a stake at each corner and a taut piece of rope in between. And knots on the rope in between the corners.
Of course, there are a number of articulations on the edge that can be used in addition to knots and spikes. Really, any repeating line pattern can be employed along the edge.
Here are some line patterns: wavy lines, beads, and twisted rope. Of course braids and yarn motifs are useful as well. But plain patterns, like stripes and diagonal "candy" stripes are also useful.
Exercising Your Brain
When I am otherwise not mentally engaged, I use that time for practice. Sometimes I do something tedious like factoring five-digit numbers in my head. You know, I like prime numbers. For instance, today I passed a house on San Jose-Soquel Road that had a number of 24,769. (I look on the right side as I'm driving home and there are often odd numbers like this one, which means they won't be divisible by 2.) I'll cut to the chase and tell you that it's 17 x 31 x 47. It took me about 4 minutes to determine that, performing long division in my head. Then, when I got home, I checked it using Siri.
It may be tedious, but it does help to keep my brain sharp when it comes to numbers. Another activity I do while driving is writing songs. I compose the melody and lyrics simultaneously. When I get an idea, I record it into Voice Notes, an iPhone app. I will go over the lyrics a few times and record a verse or a refrain.
This process keeps my creativity working while I would otherwise be bored. Exercising the right side of my brain. I used to turn on the radio while driving. I don't do that any more. I let my mind fill the silence.
I also got a great idea for a novel while driving. So I used Voice Notes to get it all down.
And, by the way, it might be a good idea to pull over, if you get too involved in an idea while driving!
Know Your Subject?
When I am wracking my brain for ideas on a particular thing, I can easily come to a standstill. It is at moments such as this that I take a step back. Specifically, this is called meta-level thinking. This process can actually be impeded by knowing too much about a subject. You can get into the mindset of thinking that it's all been said and done.
When writing a novel, it can be as simple as taking a step back and considering a character's arc. When writing music, this can manifest itself as rearranging the structure. Or adding in a full break or another device that so often makes songs interesting to our ears.
The Beatles practiced this. In We Can Work It Out, for instance, there is a section that breaks into triplets in an otherwise foursquare piece. On the back side of Abbey Road, they ran all the songs together into a single homogenous piece, a structural device. In Getting Better, one of the verses becomes one long melody instead of several broken up melodies. On All You Need Is Love, the verses contain an extra half-measure per phrase, which helps to offset the otherwise foursquare melody (the Beatles called it the Dirge), the device of changing the time signature. Or just having two authors can create a cognitive dissonance that can make a piece remarkable. On I've Got A Feeling, arguably the last composition that Lennon and McCartney wrote together (unless you consider the back side of Abbey Road to be a single piece), their contributions are quite different, and improve the song immeasurably. It goes on and on.
When programming, it helps to look at the problem in a different way. This can be a meta-level approach when you look at multiple ways of solving the problem, or you find a way to combine what would otherwise be different methods. This is particularly good when there is something you are missing.
Sometimes it's just a matter of employing multiple modes of thought at the same time.
Ideas Travel In Groups
When finding another person that is likewise creative, it is often possible to have a huge idea session. This has happened to me countless times with various people, including Tom Hedges and John Derry, the co-authors of early Painter.
A single session can generate hundreds of good ideas, I have found. When you get onto an interesting or fruitful subject, the result can be a veritable treasure trove of ideas.
This may be the Lennon and McCartney effect: the influence of two brains on creation is synergistically better than if the two created separately.
I have experienced this effect with John Derry on several occasions. Together we thought up Painter's image hose, for instance.
When you become an expert on one subject, it can help to give you the ability to solve problems in that subject. But is thorough research a ticket to stagnation?
I have found that it helps to be an expert on several subjects and then to combine the knowledge between the subjects. I'm a pretty good programmer, for instance, and I know how to draw. Combining them produced Painter.
Anyway, it's hard to ignore the profound influence of general thinking: knowing a reasonable amount about several subjects and thinking about how they relate.
Grist For the Mill
I'm not sure why it is, but I am equally sure that this is true: when we have emotional experiences, we are driven to create. This is typified by Lord Byron clutching his forehead at the top of the stair: the tortured artist. Or by Michelangelo undergoing great pains to complete the Sistene Chapel's frescoes: the agony and the ecstasy. Is it a cliché that only through pain can we create?
No, I don't think that it is. After hitting a patch of black ice and crashing my car in Denmark on the night of December 28, 1995, I sat down and wrote 7 really good poems. Sure, I write song lyrics, but poems? I was in a rare mood that evening after some wonderful "Good Samaritan" Danes stopped to pick me up and kindly delivered me to my Hotel in Copenhagen. Note that this near-death experience is not chronicled in my post Handling Serious Events. It seems I have more than my share of such events.
But, seriously, how many love songs are there? How many my baby done left me songs are there? I tell you: there's something to this theory of emotional distress and creativity. It's grist for the mill.