The Idea Machine

The biggest problem people have when trying to do personal or fine art work, is focusing in on an idea for their project. This makes sense because when you are without restrictions, it is easy to become overwhelmed and paralyzed with choice. This post will elaborate on some of the points discussed in the Who Needs Grades post. I’ll also go over the process I go through leading up to starting a new project and deciding what idea to pursue.

Idea Generation as a System

One of the main benefits of art school was having to come up with and execute projects on a constant basis. With each year these projects became less and less structured forcing us (the students) to become more self-sufficient. By 3rd year the only instructions we were given was when the due date was. Over time I developed a system, which I would use again and again, for figuring out what my next project was. This way of working gave me the necessary structure to quickly focus in on an idea and begin to do real work – the execution of the project.

I would start out by being open to and seeking out current trends, new ideas, experiences, and topics I knew little about. Over time I would compile a short list of around three specific topics that I am really interested in. Once I figured out how to explore one of them through photography I would focus in on it and jump into the production aspect.

Be Aware / Stay Current

Very few people can create work solely from inside their own head. And for me, the most interesting work explores or is informed by issues in contemporary culture. People are often waiting for that one miracle idea to strike them, it almost never happens. I prefer to take in everything, sift through the mass, and pick out the bits and pieces that will become the seeds of future project. So how does one stay current and aware you ask?

Start broad – magazines, podcasts, blogs, newspapers, twitter – media which covers many areas of interest, places where ideas you don’t seek out will come to you. Somewhere you can be caught off guard. Books for example aren’t a good first stop in your idea generation system – they’re too specific, require a lot of investment, and more often than not are self contained. It’s of more value to subscribe to something like TED Talks or Freakonomics Radio – they provide quick bites of unexpected new topics. Travel is also great as it takes you out of your comfort zone and throws you into new cultures and lifestyles. As you open yourself up to a vast array of ideas, once in a while a topic will peak your interest. Then it’s time to make a short-list.

Create a Short-List

When you find a topic that keeps cropping up and grabbing your attention, or that you have an urge to explore in greater detail, add it to your short-list. This will be a running list of topics you wish to explore further and where you will pick your final idea from. Don’t feel the need to be too specific in what is on your list, but only add things that, over time, you become really interested in. Here’s what is on my list right now:

  • Individual Based Education
  • Crown Sourced Health Research
  • Game Mechanics in Real Life
  • Shifting Drug Policies

Grouping and naming these items makes it easier to spot more information on them, eventually gathering various threads and learning more about each of the topics. At this point I try to figure out how I would turn a topic into a project. Specifically thinking about what you would photograph, what story it would tell, why photography would be good to represent it. Often I find it very hard to translate something abstract into a specific project. However, when a topic clicks I can imagine specific images I want, and usually those make it into the final edit. When this happens, you have to jump in and get to work.

Jump In

Once you find an idea that fits, put the others on the back burner. There is no time to jump back and forth between projects, commit to one and do it. I like to start doing research and shooting simultaneously. I find the more time is spent on a project without seeing any actual images the less exciting it becomes. Start reading books, essays, watching films, and doing other research, but make sure you do at least one shoot early on.

In future posts we’ll look at other aspects of creating personal work so stay tuned.

What are your tips for generating ideas and starting personal work? Share them in the comments. Also, if you like a post, please share it with others through Facebook and Twitter.


Images Sourced from: El Bibliomata