Every product, service, building that you see out there was once just an idea in someone’s mind. This person took action and turned this idea into reality.
Turning an idea into reality is not rocket science, but it requires going through certain steps and following a process. This process is the Creative Process and is the fundamental framework of product development.
It doesn’t really matter how small or how big your idea is, the Creative Process follows a very similar flow for all creative endeavors. Some can be more complex than others, depending on the complexity of the idea or project you’re pursuing.
In this article, I want to give you a glimpse about how designers and creative people approach new ideas. I will demonstrate the Creative Process using my own product (a vietnamese coffeefilter) that I created a few years ago.
Why A Creative Process Is Important
During a lifetime, many people have great ideas. Most get really euphoric about their ideas. They jump right into execution and skip thinking about what they are trying to solve or accomplish. Very rarely does this lead to success.
For this reason, I want to give you 3 major reasons why following a Creative Process is important:
1. Get a better understanding of the problem
Doing research helps you to understand the topic better. Collecting insights about the market, other products and your audience will benefit your idea and you may even come across better solutions.
2. You keep many paths open
The lack of exploration, research and planning leads to a tunnel vision and people end up working on their very first idea without considering options. This often leads to frustration down the road because of inflexibility.
3. Save timeFurthermore, having no structured approach makes them turn many rounds, waste time and lose interest in finishing what they started. The idea dies.
1. The Fundamental Creative Process
The Creative Process is not difficult. Boiled down to the core, the Creative Process only consists of three steps: Discover, Design and Deliver.
Here are the 3 steps in detail:
The first stage is where you set the goals, gather requirements, conduct research. At this stage, you create a better understanding of the problem you want to solve, the customer you want to serve and the constraints you face.
After collecting the necessary knowledge, you can move on to the more creative part of the process. Here is where you take your idea and combine it with the findings from your research to create more realistic concepts and designs.
The last step is where everything comes together. You are putting the last touches on your designs and your creation is ready to go out into the world.
This fundamental process is often broken down into smaller activities depending on the idea or project you are working on. It also varies slightly between creative industries but the core never changes.
The Creative Process is flexible and you can and should adjust it to your needs. Because every idea is different, you can remove and add certain steps that you see is necessary. At the end, however, every product or service, etc. is based on this simple framework.
1.1 The Creative Process Is Non-linear
It is necessary to accept that the Creative Process is not linear.
Even though the graphic above creates the illusion of a linear process, the reality often looks different. Going back and forth or sideways or even having things running in parallel is very normal and even necessary.
When working on projects, we often collect knowledge and generate new ideas over time. In these situations, it is good to go back and incorporate new learning that benefit the idea.
This is why a Creative Process looks more like this:
1.2 A Creative Process Can Be Messy
It is due to the nature of our mind. It’s totally normal and even appreciated.
When we work on ideas, our state of mind is in constant change.
Sometimes we feel inspired and get into the flow state easily. Sometimes we face situations where we think we are hitting against the wall. Then, sometimes great ideas seem to come out of nowhere while we shower.
Because of the constant fluctuation of thoughts, ideas and the collection of new knowledge, the Creative Process CANNOT and SHOULDN’T be linear.
If the Creative Process was linear, the result be average.
A great example for this is Leonardo Da Vinci. He worked on the Mona Lisa for many years. When he started painting her in 1503, he didn’t have the knowledge or experience that was required to finish his painting in such high degree. So he worked on his masterpiece on and off.
And while he was not working on his famous painting, he went on to explore other areas like anatomy, mathematics of optics, lighting, illusions and more. He went sidetracked.
But those explorations where necessary and helped him to build up knowledge and experience to finish his painting. Without dissecting the anatomy of the face or learning about the physics of light, he would have never been able to create such a captivating smile and realistic lighting in his painting.
1.3 Avoid The Hidden Traps Of A Messy Process
The trap that you are facing when jumping around all the time, is that you may end up not getting anything done. Leonardo Da Vinci took more 16 years to put the final touches on the Mona Lisa.
If you plan to turn an idea into a business that sustains your life and feeds your family, you can’t spend 16 years refining your product. While a healthy Creative Process benefits from explorations in different directions, it also relies on making and fixing decisions in order to make progress.
For this reason, avoid these traps at all costs:
Losing yourself in perfectionism
As a designer, I can tell you, that this is the biggest trap. There is always something you can tweak. So many times I found myself getting lost in details and wasting tons of hours. You will ALWAYS lose when you strive for perfection because a perfect product doesn’t exist.
Working on projects without a deadline
A fixed time frame gives you a target and creates focus. When you have a target, you start to ask the right questions. If your project has no deadline, you will waste time on things that are not important. Setting a deadline doesn’t mean you produce something unfinished. It means that you produce something that is good enough for your customers. You can always make tweaks in the next iteration and apply customer feedback.
1.4 Embrace Creative Procrastination for Original Ideas
Similar to a good wine, sometimes ideas need time to incubate.
If you give yourself a bit of time to think, then your mind is more likely to come up with original ideas and making connections that weren’t obvious in the first place.
This means that when you have a great idea, sleep over it. Keep it in the back of your mind and give it time to develop.
So many times I’ve seen people jumping on the first ideas they have and becoming overly enthusiastic about it, only to realize a few hours later that they are getting stuck. Jumping on something prematurely can lead to tunnel vision and you won’t be able to see the forest for the trees. You get attached to your initial ideas, start to think in linear ways and dismiss everything else.
On the contrary, if you wait too long, then you run into the risk of losing excitement and not starting at all.
There is a sweet spot in between where you still have great excitement but your mind is open enough to let other ideas in. Next time when you think you have a great idea, sleep over it for a few nights and let your idea develop.
2. How To Apply The Creative Process To Your Own Project?
Ok, let’s dive into the fun part.
In the following I want to give you an example of how to turn an idea into reality. I will use my own product to demonstrate the Creative Process.
I hope this example gives you a more tangible idea of the practical aspect and sparks some inspiration.
The Origin Story – How this project started
Before I started this project, I was traveling in South East Asia and thinking about what kind of business endeavor I would like to start.
At the time, I was working at a design consultancy called frog design. My work was diverse and creative, but I wanted to use my creativity to create something on my own. Not just for clients.
I was also hoping that I could build a side hustle that generates a nice side income, I call it “Sushi-Money”.
During my time traveling in Penang, Malaysia, I sat down in my hotel and did a brainstorming session. I came up with this idea of reinventing the vietnamese coffee filter for the western world.
Here is the first sketch:
After my travels, I got really excited. I arrived at home and started to research everything I could about coffee. Understanding what makes a great coffee and why people love coffee is essential to a coffee business. I also conducted market research to see if there are similar ideas out there. It was important to me to have a solid foundation that will feed my design decisions later.
These are some of the questions I asked myself:
- What makes Vietnamese coffee special? (for marketing later)
- Do people like Vietnamese coffee? (if not, what’s the point of moving forward, right?)
- What is the history of Vietnamese coffee? (for branding & storytelling)
- How are modern coffee filters made?
- Is there any contemporary Vietnamese Coffee filter?
- What is the state of the art for coffee filters?
- How is the Vietnamese Coffee filter unique?
- What materials can I use?
- What channels can I use to distribute the product?
- How big is the investment?
- How much time do I want to invest?
As you can see, these are not just product related questions, but also logistical and market related questions.
In the Discovery Phase, I recommend that you list all the questions that comes to your mind. This will give you a good starting point for your research.
Based on the collected knowledge, I could start to create first concepts of my product. Concepts are different from ideas. While ideas a just a vague image in your mind, concepts are much more detailed. The purpose of creating concepts is to get answers ideas can’t fully provide.
In the concept phase, it is important to be open-minded and explore many directions. Quantity is key. Your first idea will most likely never become the final product. The concept phase helps to clarify many unknown variables and provide new and better ideas.
Creating Virtual Models
After having initial concepts, I started to create 3D models in CAD. 3D models were helpful to build prototypes and see if the concept was working.
With the help of the 3D models, I could use 3D printing to create some prototypes. This step is important when creating a physical product, because you get a feel for the size and shape.
After countless iterations and tweaking details, I was arriving at a design that I was happy with. I created technical drawings for the manufacturer, ordered product samples and worked on creating marketing material.
In addition to the marketing images, I also created a short video that explains how the coffee filter works. As you can see, the video is no Hollywood production and I use my old camera that was not build for taking videos. However, the video get’s the idea across. So don’t waste time on perfection.
I hope this example was helpful to give you a better understanding of how to turn an idea and simple sketch into a real product. You can explore a more in depth process article on my personal website: Reimagining a traditional coffee maker
Summing up, the Creative Process is the underlying framework to turn an idea into reality. Every creation, whether a product, a service or a building follows the same Creative Process.
While the Creative Process needs to be modified for different types of ideas (e.g. creating a digital product is different from designing a building), the creation process follows the same steps. These fundamental steps are Discover, Design and Deliver.
Even though the Creative Process should be flexible, setting constraints are necessary to create focus and make progress.
Whenever you find yourself in the situation where you don’t know how to progress with your idea, refer back to this framework.
I hope this little guide was helpful for you. Are you currently working on a creative project? What is your Process? I’m happy to hear from you in the comments.