Putting a Timer on Creative Concepts – Can It Be Done?

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June 13, 2022 6 min read
by Richard Lee

I’m no stranger to late nights tinkering on creative concepts. It’s one of those things creatives do – go deep into ideation mode at all hours to find the perfect concept for clients. 

But before the work starts, we (myself and the team at Hyphen) are often asked how much time it will take to come up with a creative concept. A valid question! Developing a concept is arguably the most challenging part of the creative process – and it’s largely misunderstood.

Creative ideation versus creative work

There’s a difference between creative ideation – the generating of ideas – and creative work – producing work in the creative realm. We often conflate the two, but creative ideation is not creative work.

You don’t need to be ‘a creative’ to generate ideas! Creative ideation is about finding new ways to think about old problems. In many other fields, this is called “strategy.” Ideation is fluid and cannot be bound by a production time schedule.

Creative work occurs when the output of the work happens to be in the creative field such as graphic design, painting, sculpting, and so on. In contrast to ideation, creative work can be bound by a production time schedule! 

Generating a creative design concept is more often than not a dance between the practical steps in the process and moments of inspiration. It is rarely just one of the two. 

With experience it becomes easier to estimate the time needed, but there is no exact number of hours that can be applied to the process. That said, we are transparent about where we spend our time and why we think it matters.  

Creativity and business: the odd couple

It’s sometimes hard to imagine creativity and business coming together to form one stand-out creative concept. Creativity requires time, spontaneity, and room to grow. Business, on the other hand, thrives on procedure, structure, and optimization. 

Depending on your role and day-to-day work activities, you may find it hard to reconcile your process and measurement of KPIs with a creative approach. And yet, as creatives, we are asked to be more prescriptive every day – a skill that can feel as though it competes with our creativity.

So back to the question at hand: How long does it take to produce a creative concept? There is an answer, but it isn’t a number.

Not all time is created equal

When it comes to generating great creative work, there is a lot of invisible time spent. From pondering to putting pen to paper – or trackpad to Sketch – here’s how creatives spend their time:

  • Researching: Looking for inspiration and that spark that sets the whole idea in motion. 
  • Thinking: We’re referring to the when, where, and how (actively thinking about a project versus passively) of ideating and refining ideas that bring us to that elating ‘aha!’ moment.
  • Creating: Bringing it to life. This is the time spent translating ideas into tangible outcomes including sketching, modeling, exploring colour palettes, etc.
  • Collaboration & feedback: This time is about how we work with others to refine the initial idea and bring it to fruition in a final polished state.

Peek behind the curtain: How I utilize the creative process for ideation

To better understand how long it takes to develop creative ideas, it’s helpful to consider how the creative brain works. Take mine for example. 

Picture this:

Imagine a decision tree of creative options, with each branch leading to a potential idea. But take it from me, ideas don’t just grow on trees! You don’t see them at first. It takes trial and error to discover the branches and playfulness with each potential idea to allow it to grow and lead you to the leaves.

It’s a repeatable pattern, but one that’s unique every time. That’s what I love about it. Through this process, I hope that I arrive at something that has legs and longevity. Whenever I feel stuck, I start again – always moving, ever iterating. I have trust in the process.

To nurture your inner creative, start by mopping the floor

Have you wondered how agency offices became synonymous with ping pong tables and arcade machines while Fortune 500 offices conjure up visions of grey cubicles? Creativity requires mental space.

Ideas are born through lateral thinking, word association, playing games, and distraction – the exact opposite of what you want in a conventional office environment. 

No matter what your environment, if you find yourself feeling stuck with your ideation, try the approach of the Shaolin monks. 

For centuries, the Shaolin monks in China have hardened their bodies through rigorous martial exercises. The common misconception is that their Kung Fu prowess was for self defense. The truth is that Kung Fu is merely a byproduct.

The aim of the exercise is to achieve a zen-like state in their pursuit of a higher (Buddhist) consciousness because they believe that by occupying the body, the mind can become free. 

Creatives seek mental freedom. The best ideas appear when you’re not trying to think of them. Disengaging from the task at hand gives your mind the freedom to wander and explore more abstract ideas and make new connections. It’s an important part of the process that people often overlook. 

Creatives look for all kinds of ways to conjure up big ideas while doing everyday things. Some go for a run to clear their mind or find that their most brilliant ideas pop into their head in the shower. Creatives can achieve a meditative state through all kinds of chores and repetitive functions – so don’t be surprised if you see them taking a break to mop the floor. Anything to manifest the idea. 

So how long does it take to generate a creative concept or idea?

It’s subjective to decide upon the exact moment when you’ve had THE idea and when it is complete. Often, the timeline is dictated by the deadline. 
When a client asks, having an answer for “How long does it take to…” is important with respect to planning. However, the more pertinent question is almost always: “What will be the impact of this creative idea on my brand/business?”

Your creative partner may spend two hours or two months building and refining an idea. Asking them to quantify the time they’ll need before the creative process begins is like trying to get fruit from a tree that hasn’t been planted yet. The process has to be organic to yield great results.

Tools to enable creative decision making

Here are some online resources that we’ve found helpful in facilitating our creative decision-making. I hope they will spark some great moments for you too:

  • Miro > We love using Miro to collaborate with clients in a virtual environment. We can brainstorm, draw pathway maps, and conduct workshops which can then be easily shared, amended, and expanded. It’s a powerful tool to lay down ideas quickly with your stakeholders. 
  • Figma > When it comes to design platforms, will it be Figma or Sketch? We chose Figma and haven’t looked back. It’s so easy to lay down quick mockups, make changes in real time and share them. It’s easy to use and anyone can pick it up and start building interactive layouts right away.
  • Pinterest > For generating creative concepts, Pinterest can’t be beat for how its associative search algorithm works. That “creative decision tree” happens in real time with a tool like Pinterest and can help you with a lot of that creative heavy lifting.
  • Awwwards > Building a website and looking for inspiration? What’s happening on the cutting edge of web right now? It’s important to be aware of current trends to make sure your ideas aren’t obsolete as soon as your website is out of the gate.

Art for Ukraine 🇺🇦: A Collaboration with Nina Dzyvulska