Why I Always Have Ideas and How You Can Have Them Too

Where do you get ideas? Where does the inspiration come from for writing blog posts, recording podcasts, new designs? Do you have a system for generating ideas or do you wait and hope for them to come?


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The inspiration for this specific post and podcast comes from something Neil Gaiman said in a video that I think was part of a Q&A session. I was pointed to the video via BrainPickings.

In the midst of a rather humorous response to a question about where he gets ideas, Neil Gaiman mentioned that writers are good at recognizing ideas and more specifically recognizing good ideas.

That’s how I’ve always thought about ideas. To me it’s less about finding and idea and more about recognizing what around you makes for a good idea. I think people sometimes wait for the idea, for the inspiration before doing something creative, but inspiration and ideas comes during the process. They generally don’t come full-blown before you begin.

How to Generate A Storehouse of Ideas

If you want to have ideas at the ready when you want them, you need some kind of collection mechanism. You need a way to record ideas wherever you are and you need a place to store them.

You want to feed your collection mechanism with input from as many sources as realistically possible. Vary those sources. Have them come from different disciplines. Just because you’re a designer, it doesn’t mean all your sources should be design related. Vary your inputs as wide as you can.

I find reading leads me to the most ideas, but any medium will work. I’ve gotten ideas from music, television, movies, and games like chess. When reading, ideas have come from both fiction and non-fiction.

You can get ideas by observing what’s around you. I’ve had ideas walking through a mall and noticing a logo or the internal layout of a store. Observe people. Observe nature. Observe everything around you.

Record and collect anything you observe. It if makes even a momentary impact, record it somewhere. Record it on your phone, on a scrap of paper, or on a napkin. It doesn’t matter where. What’s important is you can’t trust yourself to remember so record it somewhere.

You can record in different places on different devices, but make sure you then collect everything into one central location. Collect everything into something like a swipe file. From time to time review your collection and add more notes and thoughts to your original idea. When you need an idea look through your collection and pick something.

What you record won’t always be a great idea. In fact most of the things you record will be garbage. You’ll wonder why you recorded the idea in the first place. Many will just need some work. Some of your ideas will need to be shaped and combined with other ideas that may or may not have recorded yet. These are ideas waiting to happen.

Some ideas won’t be ready for you or more you won’t be ready for them just yet. You might need to see the idea from a different perspective or you might need to understand something else before you can understand how your idea can work.

Store your ideas even when you think they aren’t worthwhile. Some will turn into good ideas or part of a good idea later.

None of this will be easy at first. I don’t want you to think you start recording and then ideas are flowing instantly. It’ll take some time, but if you give it time and keep at the process it will get easier and it does work. The process gives you a fresh perspective on things and helps you see how ordinary things fit into ideas you collect.

You want to record, collect, and review. You want to shape and combine ideas and choose some to turn into something finished. Working through ideas and turning them into something finished is part of this process.

The more you practice recording, collecting, reviewing, completing, the better you’ll get at each part of the process. You’ll begin to recognize what makes for a good idea. You’ll be out for a walk or picking up groceries and you’ll see something you know how to turn into a piece of writing or use in a design.

Like Neil Gaiman said, it’s not so much finding ideas as it is recognizing the good ones that are in front of you and always there for the taking.

My Process for Idea Collection

I always have some way to record ideas and thoughts with me. When I’m home my laptop is in front of me. When I’m out my iPhone is within reach. I can take a picture or record some audio. I can open any number of apps from the default iOS note app, to something like Daedalus Touch to record any thought that comes to mind when it comes to mind.

The specific app or method doesn’t really matter as long as I remember to process everything into my collection. Right now I use nvALT by Brett Terpstra to collect everything on my laptop. I think there are some iOS apps that will feed things directly to nvALT, maybe in combination with Dropbox, but I haven’t set any up. Probably something I should investigate more.

nvALT lets me tag everything and it has quick search and filtering. I add several tags to every idea. If it’s something I think will be a written post it gets tagged post. It I think it will be a podcast it gets tagged podcast. I write often about responsive design and have several ideas going each tagged responsive. Later when I want to add a note I enter the tag responsive and quickly find all the notes I have going.

nvALT is always open on my laptop and it’s probably the program I’m in and out of most of the day. I’m constantly recording and collecting ideas, adding to them and looking them up to retrieve information.

When I come across an article I’ll copy and paste the link. I’ll search to see if it fits with anything I have started and will often add the link to several notes. If not I’ll start a new one. When a thought comes to mind I do the same thing. See if it fits with something started or start something new.

For example I have some ideas about typography for a future post or series of posts. Any time something comes to my attention about typography I grab a link and add it to my growing file of typography ideas and notes. I continue to build up ideas this way and in time I’ll either do something with the idea or break it out into several different ideas.

Not everything I record is specifically for a post. Many are, but I also have notes going for my business plan and thoughts for the next time I redesign this site as well as a host of other things I may want to retrieve.

When it’s time to choose an idea and work it into something more finished, I find, search, and choose among the ideas I have stored in nvALT and move them to Ulysses III, where I more consciously add and organize notes in preparation to write a first draft.

Closing Thoughts

You can’t wait for the perfect idea before turning it into content or inspiration for a design. I hear many people say they don’t write because they’re waiting for the inspiration. Having the inspiration first does happen at times. It’s happened to me before and I’m sure it will happen again.

More often though ideas and inspiration come about through an active process of recording, collecting, and reviewing. I also strongly believe it’s that process that helps lead to the times where inspiration strikes first.

The process gets easier the more you do it. As you get into it you’ll discover ideas and inspiration are everywhere. You don’t need to find them. Instead you’ll train yourself to be aware of them and to notice them. You’ll train yourself to recognize the good ideas in front of you. That happens through an active process which begins by recording any idea that comes to you and finishes with a completed work.

You can practice right now. Look around and spend 5 to 10 minutes observing, brainstorming, and recording. Write things down on a piece of paper. Speak them into your phone. Type them into your computer. Just observe and record.

It doesn’t matter if the ideas are good or bad. Record them and move them to a central collection repository when you can. When I started this process I used to set aside time each week to brainstorm. Most of the ideas I came up with were bad, but it started the process.

Occasionally I still brainstorm, but for the most part I’m so actively engaged in the process of recording that I don’t need the brainstorming sessions so much.

You will get better with practice. In time you’ll be more aware of your environment and you’ll notice and recognize ideas. Even better you’ll recognize how ordinary things fit with, and relate to, ideas you have going.

Your problem won’t be where to find ideas. Your problem will be how to find the time to do something with all the ideas you have.

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