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Directing creative thinking in concept development

Updated: Jul 9, 2020

Reconciling creativity with reality?

I am a product designer for a small but formidable shopper marketing agency. The last ten years of being employed as a creative has taught me some lessons pertaining to the creative mind and how it drives creative actions. These years have underscored the importance of reconciling two seeming polar opposites: creativity and time. From the viewpoint of many creatives, there is always room for improvement; there is always another option, always a better idea just around the corner! By its very nature creativity does not want to be constrained to timelines.

However, the reality from a client point of view is that each stage of a marketing process has a certain amount of time allocated to it. Spending extra time in one phase could put the next phase under unwanted pressure and while the concept could develop further, it could do so to the detriment of the project goal in its entirety. It is therefore critically important to establish as well as hold a position between creative output and commercial viability.

Why is it important to establish a position between creative output and commercial viability?

One of the greatest and most popular pitfalls for a creative is unguided, loose creative thinking that exists entirely outside of any form of boundary. This could have serious time implications and often leads to indecisiveness – an inability to confidently choose the best option and execute it in the form of a visual, be it a Photoshop image or 3D render. Additionally, an unintentional and unguided thought process could burn valuable resource within a company, be it time, cost or capacity and could render a project commercially unviable.

How do I, as a creative, regulate my thinking in the concept phase?

There are many ways to regulate creative thinking and maybe slightly more important, to constrain creativity as early on as possible in the design process. There are non-negotiable milestones and checks in this process. Some of these non-negotiable milestones are making sure you effectively define a creative brief and then react to that brief using an identifiable design driver such as strong brand elements which inform the design. However, there are very specific tools which could be used effectively.

Some of these tools are: “Elimination” “Filter” and “Relevance”. What they aim to do is this – imagine your creative thinking like a funnel shape. You could start very wide but usually, the wider you start, the more options you have, the more difficult it becomes to bring the project back into focus at the end. There is a real risk of confusing the client with options of variations which in turn causes a never ending revert and revision cycle. These tools can invert this “funnel”. This means starting narrower and when you have a concept that you can confidently take into the next phase, you will go wider there, spending more time in the practical, considering how it should be made, which processes should be used, what should it cost etc.

Here is a quick introduction to these tools:

Elimination: The aim in this phase is elimination and direction. Eliminate options on paper not in the digital phase. In order to create a visual style, do some quick pencil on paper sketches varying in visual style, materials and size. Take the strongest contender given additional information such as budget and available materials and rationalize the design by measuring it against design drivers such as strong brand elements or the intended environment. If your design direction is “informed” you have more than enough reason to be confident in executing a single option, at most, two.


To help guide the creative thinking process through the elimination stage, I almost always employ some form of filter. The aim of this filter is to weed out any form of design or approach which would not be a relevant response to the client brief. One of the strongest filters to use is cost. For a designer, this assumes knowledge of materials and prices (or at least access to it).

Relevance: Finally, any designer should ask; “Is what I have conceptually and visually developed relevant to the market?” “Is my design relevant to the environment in which it will live?” Is it relevant for the specified lifespan?” Additionally, a design could be measured against the relevant stakeholders by asking; “Am I designing for brand, category, consumer, or retailer and have I responded accordingly?”

For considered design solutions, Contact Angle Orange, a shopper marketing agency with experienced individuals.

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