Analysis Kills Spontaneity
by Joel Derksen
October 11, 2017
An interview with Rod Judkins
This is the second in a series of Q&As in which art director Joel Derksen chats with international designers about their craft. Read the first interview with Barbara Franz, senior design lead of IDEO, here.
“Practice safe design: use a concept.” Petrula Vrontikis’ famous quote haunts every designer staring at a new brief. So how do you develop witty concepts quickly? Rod Judkins is a professor at University of Arts London. He is also a painter and the author of several books including Ideas are Your Only Currency. He’s shaped his career around sparking creativity and innovation for individuals and organizations. He talks about wrenching his students away from computers, and helping them overcome empty stylistic choices and procrastination through his course “100 ideas in 5 days.”
Joel Derksen: Could you describe your course, “100 ideas in 5 days?”
Rod Judkins: The course was inspired by short projects I set degree students on in the graphic design courses at Camberwell and other University of the Arts courses. If students were set a two-week project, they did nothing for thirteen days and then worked frantically for the last day. I started setting them short, 10-minute exercises with the same theme as a long project. The work they produced was spontaneous and fresh—better than when they had two weeks. It grew into a full day of 10-minute exercises. The students loved it and I was inspired by the immediacy of the work produced. It developed into a one-week course called “100 Design Projects.”
JD: What has this taught you about creativity as a discipline?
RJ: The standard way of doing a project—research, develop ideas, and then refine one of those ideas—has limitations. Short projects concentrate that process. Students can’t research how other designers have solved the problem. They have no external resources to tap into for ideas. The idea has to come from them. They very quickly develop strategies for coming up with concepts quickly and tap into their intuition more. Constant analysis kills spontaneity.
JD: Why are these exercises important for seasoned designers?
RJ: The course has been useful for professional designers. I have had some famous designers attend the course; I won’t mention their names but they have all thrown themselves into the spirit of the exercises and been reinvigorated by them. Professional designers can reconnect with the playful, experimental approach that can get lost when you’ve worked commercially for years.
JD: You focus specifically on using paper, pens and analog materials. Why not use the computer?
RJ: I like students to use paint, ink, pastel, as well as 3D materials such as wire, plaster, foam board, or whatever, because it makes more accidents happen. It’s quite easy for students to translate these ideas to a computer later if they want to. The course is about being rough, raw and fast. When people use a computer, they tend to develop habits and work in repetitive ways. The course is about constantly switching and mixing materials to make people work in ways they may not be familiar with
JD: What makes these exercises different than a more traditional two- to three-week design assignment?
RJ: The main difference between short projects and a traditional assignment is that students can’t do research. They can’t look on the internet, in books, and see how other designers have approached the theme. Speed forces them to tap into parts of their brain they wouldn’t normally turn to—that means that some unusual and original ideas spring up.
Work from "100 Ideas in 5 Days"
JD: How could a designer use activities like this to develop their personal approach?
RJ: The course helps the students develop a visual style—a way of communicating their ideas in a simple and entertaining way. There is a huge difference in the work they produce on the first day and the last day. By the end of the course they have discovered their strengths and weaknesses and the work they show is much stronger visually. The projects are designed to make students come up with a concept; they can’t just do something that looks attractive but has no idea.
The projects are designed to make them think about cultural issues like value, technology and other subjects that are important in the design world. A student has to think about these issues and how they relate to design.
JD: How do exercises like this break you away from style or copying?
RJ: I put the students in a situation where they have no choice but to come up with their own ideas. In a way that puts a lot of pressure on them and so it’s important to create an atmosphere where they feel confident to experiment and fail.
JD: This class is emblematic of a British design approach, known for wittiness and conceptual strength. What are your thoughts on that?
RJ: The course very much reflects the design culture of Britain—playful and irreverent but thoughtful and philosophical. It encourages students to think deeply about philosophical themes relevant to our times, but to convey those ideas in a playful experimental way.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Joel Derksen is a freelance art director and designer working in London and Amsterdam. joelderksen.com
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