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Don’t Think Outside the Box

When I left my last position, I got a really awesome and gracious email from one of my designers. The position there was his first opportunity to work as a professional designer, and while it was no secret that he was green coming into it all, he grew immensely over the time I worked with him. He’s an extremely talented Illustrator, which is a skill too few designers have today.

On my way out, his email to me asked if I had any career advice, words of wisdom, or design insight. I wrote him back a lengthy email, and can’t remember at this moment everything that I told him. But I do remember this.

How often do we hear, from art directors, bosses, clients, and the design community, that we need to “think outside the box?” Too often. That phrase is stifling, is it not? You feel so forced to experiment that you risk crossing that line between ground-breakingly creative, and totally off-base irrelevant to the purpose of the project. And when you come to the realization that the latter is what you’ve produced, it’s so disheartening. I’ve been there.

So what I told my friend Ryan, is don’t try so hard to think “outside” of the box. Think about your project. Think about the box; what is encompassed in the box. Brainstorm and mindmap words and concepts related to your content. What you’ve done then, is increased the box. You have spanned outside of the obvious solutions, and introduced some fresh, new concepts to yourself. Then, design based on those!

Here’s a quick example:

My project is to design an ad for a pet shop.

I think initially, dogs, cats, birds, fish. Maybe accessories like collars, cute little doggy outfits (if you’re into that,) food bowls, etc. That’s all the obvious.

Now to expand the box. How about the lifestyle of owning a pet? The health and exercise benefits from taking dogs on a walk. The beauty of the colors in the feathers on the birds or the scales on the fish. The varying personalities of cats, or maybe a play on cats’ nine lives.

See what I’ve done there? In just a couple minutes, I picked a topic, and brainstormed to develop several fresh concepts, without even researching. So don’t worry so much about trying to think outside the box. Just stretch the box a little bigger, and you’ll nail your design.

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