8 Secrets To Creative Thinking (Hint: Steal From Others)

Bob Gill, cofounder of F/F/G, which was later renamed Pentagram, offers tips on finding your creative voice.

8 Secrets To Creative Thinking (Hint: Steal From Others)

In the Fifties, I, together with just about every designer, was preoccupied with aesthetics and fashion. Design was the latest typeface in a modern layout looking like a Mondrian with lots of white space. That’s what I was taught in art school.


I don’t remember when I changed. Whether it happened all at once, or gradually. Eventually, inspired by designers Paul Rand, Lou Dorfsman and Helmut Krone, an art director at Doyle Dane Bernbach, along with the surrealist painter, René Magritte, I became less interested in design for its own sake and more interested in design as it communicates an opinion.

That was sixty years ago. Today, it’s even more incumbent upon the graphic designer to shake things up, to surprise. Today, the audience for graphic design is the same audience who will have seen the latest alien film and the hottest music video with special effects that are dazzling. How can a designer compete with this magic in, say, a full-color full-page ad, or, even more unlikely, a modest, black and white, one column ad for boring products like toothpaste or cat food? We don’t have the technology, or the budgets, or the time to compete with Avatar today, or God knows what will come along tomorrow. If we want to attract attention to our work, we have to explore the other end of the visual spectrum. We have to go to reality. We must take a careful look at the real world and, in effect, say to our audience, “Look! have you ever noticed this before? Even though it was right under your nose.”

And there’s another thing about the situation today that designers must recognize. Before computers, the production of printed matter was in the hands of designers and printers. Most clients had only the vaguest idea how it was produced. And they were prepared to pay well for their logos, annual reports, and other business papers.


But that’s not the way it is now. Now, for $99.99, it’s possible to buy a program that allows anyone with desktop publishing facilities to produce much of the stuff of the average business. The mystique has finally gone out of ordinary design and print. These programs fit words and images into professional-looking formats. They even throw in some special effects. For low-end commercial needs, that’s fine.

So, if anyone who can type can do much of the work previously done by well-paid specialists, what’s left for the designer? They have to do things that a typist with a computer can’t do. This means that they have to be thinkers, problem-solvers, whether they like it or not. And, unfortunately, thinking is not the designer’s first love. They love choosing colors, pushing type and shapes around, drawing in a particular style, and imposing the latest graphic tricks on their next job, regardless of whether they are appropriate or not. They get these tricks from the Culture.

[One of Gill’s signature visual puns: “Smoking a pipe makes you…seem more elegant]

The Culture has given them preconceptions about what’s exciting, what’s interesting; and most designers spend their time trying to emulate what’s supposed to be hot, what’s current, what’s trendy. But just think, if we want to do something that’s original, how can rely on what the Culture tells us? The Culture tells all of us the same thing. It’s not Big Brother who’s watching you, it’s Disney, The Shopping Channel, Rupert Murdoch, Time, and a few other mega-corporations.


The Culture that they inflict on us through their virtual monopoly of network television, cable, CDs, film, theatre, book and magazine publishing, etc., is designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator, which in turn allows them to merchandise the greatest numbers of tchotchkes. Of course, the establishment allows just enough high culture to prove that they’re not philistines.

How can you extricate yourself from this avalanche of white bread, so that you can be an original thinker?


The first thing is to purge your mind of as much cultural baggage as possible. When you get a job, regardless of how familiar the subject, resist any temptation to think you know enough about it, and you’re ready to design. Assume that as all of the information and imagery was supplied by the Culture Mafia, none of this is original with you. Research the subject as if you know nothing about it. Don’t look for inspiration in design books. Don’t sit at your computer, waiting for lightening to strike.


If the job is for a dry cleaner, go to a dry cleaner. And stay there until you have something that you honestly think is interesting to say about dry cleaning. I don’t know exactly how to do this. However, I do know that the more you research the subject, the more likely you are to discover something really interesting, or better yet, something original, something that no one has ever noticed before. (Incidentally, sometimes even if I am not doing a job involving a dry cleaner, I go there anyway just to get a buzz from the naptha fumes.)

Only when you are satisfied with the statement can the design process begin. Try to forget what good design is supposed to look like. Listen to the statement. It will tell you how it should look. It will design itself. Well, almost.

[The AGM logo that Gill created]

The problem is the problem

The most likely chance of having an interesting solution is to begin with an interesting problem. Unfortunately, almost every problem designers are likely to get will be boring. The first thing, therefore, is to redefine the problem so that it is interesting.


For example: Original problem: Logo for AGM, a company that makes very small industrial models. The client also wanted the AGM logo to be large enough to be seen on their building and on their delivery van.

Problem redefined: How can the AGM logo be large enough to be seen on the side of their building and, at the same time, communicate that the company makes very small things?

Stealing is good

People have been making images for thousands of years. Images like X-rays, flags, NASA moon photographs, theatre masks, pub signs, the Mona Lisa, Civil War daguerreotypes, graffiti, engravings, engineering drawings, etc. These images, depending upon how they are used and/ or modified, can transcend their original, narrow purpose. They can represent a cultural period or a very specific idea. And if a designer can use them in ways never conceived of by their creator, I think it’s legitimate to liberate them.


There’s no such thing as a bad cliché

Skull and crossbones says pirate. Stars and stripes says America. A magnifying glass says detective. A heart says, I love you. The good news is that these clichés communicate instantly. The bad news is that these common images have been used so often that they’re no longer visually interesting. However, if they are used in fresh ways, they can be very effective.

Interesting words

Take a statement like: We cure cancer for a nickel. It isn’t necessary to make the words look interesting. They are interesting. If you try to make an interesting statement look interesting, the look competes with the words.

Boring words

Most designers are not very good copywriters. Most copywriters are not very good either. So, if you find yourself having to design something with boring words, don’t try to make them interesting. Let the images do the heavy lifting.


Words into pictures

Why bother to illustrate a word… if the word itself can be the illustration, as in the case of this comedy film logo.

Everyone knows that less is more. But sometimes, more can also be more.

I was asked to do a logo for Nast & Zalben Productions, an event planning service. When they told me about the various things they had produced in the previous twelve months, I thought it would be interesting and fresh to include all of them in the logo. I even added some that they didn’t do, just for fun.

This is an excerpt from the monograph Bob Gill, so far (October, 2011). It was republished with permission by Laurence King. Buy the book for $50 here.