Creative Block? Try Thinking Like An Architect To Build Great Ideas

Ideas don’t come out of the blue–they’re created contextually. Here’s how Snøhetta built a foundation for creativity.


The multidisciplinary design firm Snøhetta–which has offices in Oslo, New York, Austria, and San Francisco–has been steadily leaving its mark all over the world through architecture, branding, landscapes, and more. It recently created Norway’s new banknotes, transformed Times Square into a pedestrian paradise, built an addition to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and used land art to insulate a particle accelerator. It’s also redesigning the French Laundry, one of the most famous restaurants in business today.

[Image: Snøhetta]

This is a long way of saying that there’s no shortage of creativity at the company. So how does Snøhetta build great ideas? It starts with a co-creation strategy that it uses with all clients. At this week’s Fast Company Innovation Festival, Snøhetta put a condensed version of the process in action (normally it takes four to eight hours; this session was 90 minutes) and invited attendees to design a new logo for the magazine in a workshop led by founding partner Kjetil Trædal Thorsen and managing director of brand design Martin Gran.

Create Context

Snøhetta is a non-hierarchical firm and employs designers from different educational, cultural, and social backgrounds. The firm believes that the different perspectives each individual has will ultimately make for stronger ideas since everyone approaches the world differently. Similarly, the experience of clients and their perspectives will inform the direction of a project. The firm uses the expression “finding the singular in the plural” to define this notion.

“The conversation of what and why is very important when creating something that affects somebody,” Gran says. “Everything is context-driven.”

To kick off the creative process, Snøhetta creates a conceptual springboard. It begins by giving clients a group of random photos of different places and things–a beehive, a dog, a man with big ears, a volcano. The group then discusses what the images represent conceptually and picks three that embody what they want to achieve and three that embody what they don’t want to achieve.

“This is a method we use to get away from strategy documents–which are very good, we need them, too–but we also need to get under the skin of who the clients really are and who the organization is,” Gran says.


Zoom Out

After building a springboard of ideas, the next step involves distilling them down to a couple of core concepts, words, or associations and running with those. For example, a metaphor of a computer chip–something that holds a wealth of information–inspired the Alexandria Library, one of Snøhetta’s first projects. The firm is currently constructing a cultural center in Saudi Arabia, which is one of the first public buildings in the country designed for both men and women to use simultaneously. Riffing on gender equality, Snøhetta used a metaphor of a Roman arch–a structure that only stands if every component is in place and fails if even one is removed.

“You have to step outside the overload of information in order to create meaning in a complex world,” Gran says. “Think of a PowerPoint presentation. You get lost if there’s something filling every corner of a slide. You need space. Zoom out in order to understand.”

Get Physical

Thinking metaphysically gets to the heart of an concept, but getting physical–putting your hands to work–leads to a fuller exploration of how those ideas could feed into a formal representation. “We learn as much with our bodies as from our brains,” Gran says. Snøhetta builds models for everything, even for something that will exist in 2D, like a logo. Thinking in three dimensions imparts more depth and strength to an idea. The models are built quickly and with simple materials, like foam or clay.

“Working [as a creative] isn’t a mythology—it’s a process-oriented method,” Thorsen says.

This goes to show that the journey of arriving at a great idea is as important as the idea itself.


[All Photos (unless otherwise noted): Arturo Olmos for Fast Company]

About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.