The creative concept: where do great ideas and solutions come from?

That’s quite the set-up isn’t it? We’re very generous at Screenmedia, but if we definitively knew where great ideas come from, would this be something we would tell you for free? Well, maybe.

What we can share with you is how our team use different strategies to come up with great ideas and why people sometimes misunderstand the notion of a ‘concept’. Within this, we’ll also ask whether truly original ideas even exist and talk about the importance of mood boards, as well as their impact on the design process.

Where do you start?

First of all, there is no ‘best’ place to start with a creative project. It’s starting that’s key. In an ideal world, you’ll have had time to digest the brief, do some research on the company, product or service, undertake some competitor analysis or talk to the relevant internal parties involved. Maybe you’ve had the opportunity to question the client and talk to customers, or even all of the above.

If you’ve read and re-read the brief, talked to some key stakeholders and completed some background research, you’re probably in a good place to begin concepting. There comes a point though, where all the background noise has to die down, and it’s just you and a blank page. Remember the client needs this idea to launch their new service or product, and they need it soon.

Feeling a bit panicked yet?

The phrase “facing the white bull” has been variously attributed to DH Lawrence or Ernest Hemingway, but the gist of it is, when faced with a blank page – or a blank computer screen – it’s easy to feel intimidated.

That’s why it’s good to have a plan.

The creative process

That’s right. It’s a process. Most people’s idea of creativity – in fact the very word – seems to suggest a carefree soul plucking great ideas out of thin air. This happens, but very rarely and this idea is often notoriously difficult to monetise.

At Screenmedia, our creatives have a range of strategies they use to take that first step towards a solution. Some create spider charts with aims, goals and desires in the centre. Others go straight to online design resources to look at styles, forms and shapes that could inform a concept. Some grab a sketchpad, go to a quiet part of the studio and start drawing out example pieces of media and sketching the beginnings of ideas.

From a personal point of view, the first thing I do is write the name of the client in the top left corner of the page in a blank A4 pad and underline it twice, followed by the name of the project underneath. There. No more blank page. No more white bull.

This little exercise also serves another purpose. It starts my particular version of ‘the process’. After writing the name of the client and project, I start jotting down key phrases from the brief or a client conversation, or little references I found during my research, a stray comment from a project manager – and of course doodles, scribbles and lots of crossing out. This, for me, is where concepting begins.

But what is a creative concept?

For Screenmedia, the creative concept defines the very core of the project. This can be an overarching theme – and might not even be client or consumer facing – that informs everything else we do. It’s the bedrock to build the rest of the campaign on and it serves as a anchor-point for every new piece of collateral or activation we create. It acts as a check and balance as we evolve media, and it’s also a reference point we can go back to and ensure each segment of the output is connected with the original idea.

It’s always important to remember the overarching concept is not a tagline. It’s not a headline. And it doesn’t necessarily form part of any consumer or customer-facing output.

However, this concept is vital, and getting it right is difficult. For an outside observer, it requires a relative leap of faith from a campaign perspective and it’s part of the reason why clients very rarely see this output at such an embryonic stage. Normally when presenting this internally, we tend to show a few options, write a little synopsis about each concept that includes what it is, what it means, how it ties into the brief and even how it could work across channels. This tends to have a few revisions – also known as ‘complete rewrites’ – and back and forths among the core team. Remember 99% of the ideas you come up with will not go anywhere. It’s nothing personal. But when everyone’s happy with the options, these are then ‘built-out’ a little more to possibly include sample headlines with imagery or more likely, a mood board of where/how we see the project progressing.

Mood boards – the essence of design process and idea generation

From a creative perspective, mood boards do a huge amount of heavy-lifting. If they’re created the right way, they not only convey the overall design idea without the hugely time-consuming process of creating finished visuals, but can also help clients understand the ‘look’ of a project and even speed up the sign-off process.

They’re also great for conveying the ‘feel’ of an idea by using textures, images and colour-themed imagery that provide visual references on the tone of the output. We use a mixture of online and offline mood boards to quickly show ideas internally and craft these up towards any client presentation or interaction.

It’s also a great way to gauge reaction if you want to go off-piste. If you’re presenting three ideas, traditionally the final one was the version that pushed the client a little bit further. It was usually the one that the creatives fought to be included and certainly had the most enthusiasm internally. It was the left-field idea that might just work and it might even be something no-one had considered.

A great example of this is the iconic “giant squid” citrus squeezer designed by Philippe Starck for Alessi. His original brief was to create a kitchen tray.

Is any idea truly original anymore?

Creating something is already a tough challenge. Creating something completely unique is at least one stage beyond that.

How many times have you seen or heard an ad campaign or product launch and it makes you think ‘that seems familiar.’ Every car manufacturer consistently puts out ‘life’s journey’ mash-ups regardless of the brand or type of car, washing powder ads always feature red wine or grass stains, and perfume/aftershave ads seem to have a lot of people walking in glamorous outfits to no particular destination.

In our hyperconnected world, there are even accusations of direct rip-offs that began life as student YouTube videos that were essentially reshot and appropriated to represent major brands – with no credit to the original creators.

So how do you create something innovative?

When any new medium comes along, it’s a great opportunity to push the boundaries a bit further. Our Channel 4 Human Test is a great example of this. Leveraging smart speakers and voice assistant technology, we created a Turing-style test to promote season 3 of the critically acclaimed drama Humans by quizzing the show’s core fans to find out if they were human or ‘synth’ – giving them an exciting new experience as a result.

Hopefully, this gives you a little bit of an insight in how our creatives approach the huge array of requests we get from our clients, as well as how we get from a blank page to fully formed outputs.

If you’re thinking about getting our team to work on your next project, get in touch, we’ve a range of creative strategies to ensure we help you meet – and exceed – your goals.


Design Director

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