Tom Hagan Design | Catching Ideas from Both Sides of the Brain
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Catching Ideas from Both Sides of the Brain

Catching Ideas from Both Sides of the Brain

A design brief has just hit on your desk…


You read it through ten, twenty times, making notes of all the specs, researching; making sure you know everything they are referencing, and now it’s time to start finding a solution to their problem – and as always, it’s easier said than done.

To boil the complexity of human thinking down into two stark opposites, there are two ways of tackling any problem:


Linear Thinking


Lateral Thinking


Linear thinking is the sort of thinking that follows a step by step process to accomplish a predicted end result. It is a well-trodden path and from heaps of previous analysis should get you to the other side with minimum scrapes.


A person solely using linear thinking is the sort of thing you’d imagine some spotty lad in a dimly lit basement glueing model aeroplanes together never straying from the official competition handbook.


Despite this example, linear thinking has major benefits which you can use to maintain a high standard of work. Which I will talk about in just a moment.


Lateral thinking, on the other hand, is more ‘creative’ I suppose. Lateral thinking involves indirect exploration which generates ideas more randomly.


The big lateral thinking examples from history have become the stuff of legend. They seem so unlikely and the work of some superhero genius type. Like the melody of Yesterday simply coming to Paul McCartney in a dream one night, or Archimedes jumping out his hot bath after coming across a his groundbreaking water displacement theory (Eureka!), or accidentally inventing the microwave by finding your lunchtime chocolate bar melted in your pocket when walking past a radar set at work [ref].


This is a dangerous myth which tells us that genius is random and doesn’t involve work, when in fact, it misses out the hours and hours of work, much through linear thinking put in prior in order to get to the point of experimentation with lateral thinking.


A person consumed solely by lateral thinking would look more like a madman. Scattering through their day not knowing what time it was or what clothes to wear. They could barely string a sentence together let alone discover something that could potentially change the world. Even the most incredible idea thought of in the mess of their mind would lack the linear reasoning to work through it and produce something extraordinary.


The truth is, neither of these types of thinking has created truly compelling work independent of each other. To really become a powerhouse in any field you need to understand and employ both of these types of thinking to tackle any problem successfully.


Linear Thinking


To me, Linear Thinking seems to come more naturally. I see Linear Thinking as more of a survival mechanism – analysing which was done before and arranging the process in a linear fashion (1,2,3) which can be easier replicated next time to be improved upon again, again… and again.


It’s not as sexy as it’s counterpart, but the main benefit of this type of thinking is that: Replication.


The main danger here isn’t that we think too laterally, it’s that we can think too linearly.


With this type of thinking, we can take the typewriter and make a thousand more, though it’s with lateral thinking we take the typewriter and invent the word processor – a new technology, a new industry.


To think about a concept linearly you move the objectives into stages, then split up the stages into manageable tasks and components such as Colour, Space, Typography, etc.


You can see how this would help the design process as you can quickly create checklists (or a process) which can be repeated for each concept; helping you gain a similar momentum in every project you take on and thus a standard of workflow which you can promise to clients.


These days, we can outsource much of our linear thinking to computers and for the most part, automate the logical part of our brain; giving us more time for creative decision making. And that’s Beautiful.


Machines can never truly replace our lateral thinking, as in the end, lateral thinking always will demand the human judgment of whether the result is good, or bad – and that varies wildly from person to person.


Lateral Thinking


Lateral Thinking or Non-Linear Thinking can be hard to explain, as our brains tend to have to understand things linearly :s


The best description of Lateral Thinking I’ve found is:


“Human thought characterised by expansion in multiple directions, rather than in one direction, and based on the concept that there are multiple starting points from which one can apply logic to a problem.”


Meaning, instead of working through things in a 1,2,3 process, you start from nowhere in the sense that there is no starting point and no end point, you just gently lift off in all manner of associations and see what happens.


Imagine if you could just throw all your thoughts out at once onto an unexpecting wall and see what sticks. That’s lateral thinking. It’s a little more messier than what the graceful myth of the genius leads us to believe.


The main objective with lateral thinking is to realise that you are indirectly exploring. This means you need to make quick and brief associations with things until you get in the lateral thinking ‘zone’, so to speak.


I like to use three methods to get my lateral thinking muscles working:




Brainstorming is the most frequent lateral thinking exercise (because it’s probably the best). The key to good brainstorming is not to shoot any association down and put them all down as fast as they come. The faster you put them down, the quicker your brain is forced to think of more. The more you put down, the more you’re forced to think outside the box. 


30-50 Thumbnails In Under an Hour.


This forces your sketches to become loose and unpolished, keeping you uncommitted to each idea. By about 30 they can start to get interesting (for better or worse). At this stage, the goal is quantity, not quality.


Drawing non-linearly.


Additionally, you can also write or draw ideas in a non-linear way, meaning, dotting them about all over the shop and see what associations naturally come. This is supposed to free the mind a little from our natural linear constraints. If we list them in a bullet point fashion this can influence our associations and we can miss out on discovering something brilliantly weird and wonderful.


Here’s an example of the typical initial stages of a logo design. This is for an unnamed Buddhist Library, we will call it… ‘Buddhist Library’, and for late fees, you just get bad karma 😉


First I’ll split up the two ideas, Buddhist and Library, into different bubbles and write down as fast as I can of all the associations my mind thinks of.


Then, as quick as I can make associations off of those associations, sometimes joining on to associations from the other bubble…




Then, having given it a fresh glance, I circle any engaging ideas which stand out to me. They shouldn’t stand out in comparison to the design brief; not yet at least, but simply, ideas that you think could be fun.


Then you can start sketching out quick thumbnails using the ideas generated in the brainstorm and just vamp. A lot.





When doing the sketches you may start to spot trends that are working and trends that aren’t. For example, in this design, I seemed to be leaning a lot on symmetrical, centred, strong design. This I found was reflective of the Buddhist art and continued.  I also noted that too much detail in these designs created noise, something which Buddhism shy away from, so started to iterate my thumbnails as time went on to be more peaceful and slow.


Again, after what I’ve felt were some good initial ideas, I’d circle any that grabs my attention.


Here I will start to apply these rough sketches to the brief a little and whether any them could possibly solve the problem.


When I circle I’m asking questions like, “okay, can I simplify this down to an app icon? When people see a scroll, do they think of a library? Is a tree immediately evocative of Buddhism?


These are important questions to ask, as I may really like the idea of the Buddhist scroll in front of the Buddhist wheel, though it probably won’t work the best in communicating a Library.


This will save me tons of time in the long run; stopping me creating a self-motivated idea rather than thinking of the clients needs first.






Of course, the client would feel ripped off if I only provided one initial draft, so I then pick and choose other possible solutions which excite me.


You should never throw out your ideas, as you never know when that silly drawing of Buddha wearing reading glasses could actually come in handy (I won’t be holding my breath though).




BL 03


BL 04


Buddhist Library v.4-02

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