Nourishing the Unconscious
The search for stimuli throughout the creative process
The first good idea I had the early phase of my career— the first idea I got really excited about—was for a large packaging project. I’d had solid ideas here & there prior, but this was the first time I got gut-level thrilled about a concept while first sketching it out: I was at home, long after work, doing other things, and when the notion occurred to me, it made me reach for my sketchbook in a mad rush, drawing the thought quickly so as not to lose it, shedding graphite and cliché dust all over my desk.
I was ecstatic, eager to share it with my team, confident it was going to work. I remember having trouble sleeping that night, excited to get to the office early and put a comp together. Of course, I also felt slightly fraudulent, like I hadn’t actually earned the idea, its sudden appearance seemingly needing no effort from me at the time of its arrival. Yes, our team had been on the project for a few weeks, but that day I wasn’t working on it at all, and I was certainly not thinking about it at home, either. It felt like I’d gotten away with something, like finding a $20 bill in a jacket you haven’t worn in a while. It feels yours when you find it, but is it? Did you put it there? How can you be sure?
After months of approvals and revisions and further tribulations, the sketch did end up evolving into a system approved by the client. And though I haven’t shown this work to anyone in years—the finished product eventually joining the deep roster of Retired Portfolio Pieces—I often think back at that rough sketch. I remember that spacey evening, that sense of staring out at who-knows-what, tempting sleep, and then the pure joy of being struck by a little mote of an idea, a speck of something I thought was pretty cool, and not knowing how it got there.
It’s a feeling that most of us in design relish and seek and wonder about and — when we are lucky — experience firsthand a few times throughout our careers. Yet, as much as we try to synthesize this alchemy or parse out its steps or try to replicate that feeling, the more our careers travel along, the more we realize that most of these inner workings are beyond our grasp. Ideas do not come from “nowhere,” exactly, but they do come from a place we can’t navigate or control as much as we’d want to. And so, if we can’t directly control the process of getting ideas, what can we do to make sure we can keep finding them? What can we do to chart the path for them to find us again, even if it’s after work hours, on some random, lazy evening?
In the introduction to Incognito, neuroscientist David Eagleman states that “when an idea is served up…your neural circuitry has been working on it for hours or days or years, consolidating information and trying out new combinations. But you take credit[for the idea] without further wonderment at the vast, hidden machinery behind the scenes.”
Ideas emerge from our unconscious voids, these infinitely large areas of unseen forces, 100 billion neurons-strong. Every insight we’ve ever had is the work of unseen forces that ruminate for minutes, days, years — decades even — behind our executive brains. But, when an idea arrives, it feels like magic, like it materilizes out of nowhere; its sudden, internal arrival disguising the eternal toil and incubation it went through while you were paying attention to other things. Eagleman continues by making a larger point: “…most of what we do and think and feel is not under our conscious control. The vast jungles of neurons operate their own programs. The conscious you — the I that flickers to life when you wake up in the morning — is the smallest bit of what’s transpiring in your brain.”
This is the greatest single trick the brain ever pulled on us — making us think we are in control. Our unconscious is the real author of our best ideas, the ghostwriter within. It’s an uncomfortable reality to confront as designers, since it means admitting that we don’t know, exactly, where our ideas come from. Of course, we talk about concepts all day, and we mutter about ideas to our peers and clients all the time, but we also know we can’t trace or locate their specific provenance. We move onward and valiantly try to give off the illusion of creative autonomy — to clients, to peers, to ourselves — without any direct control of the creative process.
This is not to suggest that you must surrender all agency; it does not absolve the conscious self of responsibilities. The”you” that flickers to life in the morning still has some duties to execute, some terrestrial tasks to accomplish. While the unconscious remains responsible for our creative output, our conscious selves are responsible for the ingredients that will lead to all these insights, the bits of dust that will turn into rocks and stars.
It helps to understand this responsibility, and to continuously plan for it. This means that we must persistently feed our unconscious with valuable stimuli. It means that we must become careful consumers of content. The diversity, breadth, and range of information we seek — the books we read, the articles we save, the doodles we make, the lines we draw — all end up in our unconscious as disparate elements, inside our heads and yet a universe away, waiting for a connective spark. As Rebecca Solnit once put it, “the stars we are given, the constellations we make.”
Over the years, as I’ve come to understand and embrace this neurological balance, I’ve come to rely on a few critical types of stimuli to keep my unconscious nourished. I do my best to seek these out, roughly as follows:
This is the wide edge of the funnel. This encompasses anything and everything you are interested in, all your curiosities aggregated. This channel of stimuli should be running year-round, and it should include challenging elements, lighter fare, and everything in between. The things you take in should be diverse and eclectic — do not only read your favorite author’s work. Mix it up, have fun, seek new things, and do so constantly, not just when a project is underway. This requires vigilant and deliberate effort — things won’t just fall on your lap all the time. Find a recurring time that you set aside for things that interest you, in any medium, for any one of your senses. Read fiction on the weekend, sort your Spotify playlists on weeknights, catch up on podcasts on the way to the grocery store, binge on comedy shows in between household tasks, eat at least one new ingredient every month. Remember that “leisure is not passive,” as Bertrand Russell once noted.
You tend to find these depending on your recent work’s general tendencies. If you have been working with a few tech clients of late, you are probably already bookmarking some newsletters from tech luminaries. If your client is an architect, that might lead you to think about materials and watching a documentary on the logging industry or skim through a photo essay on the beauty of marble. These do not have to relate specifically to your work but to the adjacent areas that your work deals with. This type of stimulus can bridge the gap between general stimuli you are already seeking year-round and the direct reference materials you need to know to do your job.
This is content related to the specific project right in front of you. If your client is in the health care industry, you will certainly need to read up on the research they produce, the peer-reviewed articles they publish, their internal materials, and of course, anything and everything they send you after a kickoff. This is a critical stimulus channel, but one that generally gets built as you go — a fluid, ever-changing source of information that centers on specific issues. You might not know what you will need to know six months in the future, so leave time in your schedule to gather specific information when the time comes.
The Direct stimuli will always seem like the most pressing need, given the short-term deadlines and content-loaded-PDF’s likely hurled at your direction during a project. However, the tangential stimuli — all those Adjacent and Peripheral stimulus sources — are crucial, as they will tend to net more interesting insights. Those outer reaches of information will naturally collide and generate more unexpected solutions, more surprising juxtapositions. (That idea for the packaging project all those years ago did not arise solely from reading client materials; it came from a combination of unrelated stimuli, repurposed for the problem at hand.)
Of course, those Adjacent/Peripheral bits of content need to be in your unconscious orbits way ahead of time, before you even know what to do with them. They will lay seemingly inert for months and years, and inevitably, many of these will vanish into oblivion, but they are critical to obtain. Small, random things will add up; long-distant stars will form clusters and shape constellations over time.
Your specific formula might vary. Todd Henry in The Accidental Creative suggests a stimulus “Study Plan” roughly composed of 25% content related to your work, 50% personal curiosities, and 25% challenging, wide-ranging content that, like “mental vegetables,” is just good for you. Regardless of the specific ingredients and their relative amounts, all the input sources require space, time, and attention. This accumulation is a duty that is yours and yours alone. No client will ever pay you to seek “adjacent content;” no art director will ask you to “keep up on unrelated matters you find interesting” on company time. It is your lifelong task to keep these sources flowing, to be the careful steward of the stimuli that reach your unconscious expanse. It’s a never-ending task that gets built slowly, one speck of dust at a time. Think cosmic, act granular.
Joel Gold, a Professor of Psychiatry at the NYU School of Medicine, observes that the universe “consists primarily of dark matter. We can’t see it, but it has an enormous gravitational force. The conscious mind — much like the visible aspect of the universe — is only a small fraction of the mental world. The dark matter of the mind, the unconscious, has the greatest psychic gravity.”
The invisible entity, the unconscious “dark matter,” is the strongest force. As Eagleman notes, we are often too quick to take credit for the work of our unconscious minds, to greet the neural connections they bring us with a readily available “I Did This!” chest thump. It takes diligence, patience, and humility, but we are all delegators of all our creative work, whether we admit it or not.
We cannot sculpt stars, but we are the sole seekers and gatekeepers of stardust. We do not control when our ideas arrive, but we do control what they are made of. We could all benefit from embracing this role, from understanding our place in the scheme of things. Our ideas are ours only in a fleeting sense, very near and quite distant all at the same time.