What is a ‘Good’ Idea?

We all have moments of inspiration. Whether you are a full-time creative professional tasked with churning out new concepts all day long, or working in field of business that is considered a ‘normal’ job (What is ‘normal’, anyway?).

Everyone gets a chance once in a while to be a first with something. And that feels good. Whenever I have a new idea, be it as a potential solution to a design brief or just a personal piece of artistic expression, I feel like I am privileged. Like I know something no one else knows.

The question becomes: What do I make of it?

In first instance, one would start to think about what sort of leverage an idea brings. In simple terms, how much is this idea worth? What can I sell it for? Who can impress with it? How will this positively impact on my public profile? I think many creative people consciously or subconsciously ponder on this, naturally regarding their creative output as their product.

However important this may be to sustain your living, or your expectation of style of living, there are more aspects to it, in my opinion, than the mere monetization of ideas. There are ethical implications at the base of it all.

Many times before has this issue been raised in regards to design. Yet it is still present. Ethics in Design are a deep and complex issue. Our work is directly related to ethical questions and the work we produce always carries moral implications.

A few mentionable resources that cover this topic are the famous First Things First manifesto and this expansive website, looking closely at the relationship of Design and Ethics, and featuring more examples of moral and immoral design solutions.

Eiffel Tower Construction-1800s. An idea meant to last, yet it constantly has to be maintained. Credit: Publicdomainarchive.com

You as the creator have the authority and thus responsibility to test your idea. This can be a simple as thinking it through, thinking ahead towards all possible implications and effects your idea will have.

To assist in this process, gauging the benefit of an idea, it helps to start by simply asking yourself:

  • Will it help?
  • Will it fulfil an essential need?
  • Will it increase joy, pleasure or wellbeing, and will it relieve pain, problems and concerns?

This goes for yourself, for your client, for the end user and for those that are impacted, for the environment. If all of these questions are answerable with ‘yes’, then your idea is probably a good one. Contributing positively to the environment is good for us all.

In fact, every idea will have good and bad effects. If you are a creative professional, I believe it is your highest duty to ensure the beneficial essence of your idea. This is a moral decision. An idea can seem like it will make you rich, but at what cost?

Every truly good idea should be at least mostly good. An idea that carries some negative effects, but not more than positive, is mostly good, and worth pursuing. Ideas that are mainly bad carry some good aspects and are also worth pursuing. Only fully bad ideas are not worth pursuing.

Pursuit offers a chance for refinement, to increase the positive aspects in iterations. Be advised though, that it is indefinitely up to you to decide on which ideas you want to pursue.

Examples

If you are designing a simple document layout, think about how to communicate the content of the messages clearly and easy to read. Don’t smack distracting headlines all over the place, just to direct attention. If you are designing adverts that are in the public environment, implement beneficial stories of product consumption that are not solely based on the stereotypes of quick convenience, but encourage your audience to think and to act mindfully. Yes, mindfully, like monks. Enable your audience to transcend their everyday trot, allowing them to fulfil the highest type of need a person has, becoming something better than oneself.

Isn’t that more rewarding to the audience, you and us all, than a price saving for a limited time? Eternal enlightenment for all. Think about it. You as designer can enable people to be and feel better than they are. That’s a privileged job. Do it well.

In tackling even larger problems, the question becomes:

Will it benefit the planet?

The Blue Marble — Earth as seen by Apollo 17 in 1972. Credit: NASA/Apollo 17 crew; taken by either Harrison Schmitt or Ron Evans

Robert Oppenheimer stated regrettably to have ignored the implication conflict of his work, when he conceived the atomic bomb. In his own famous words “I have become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” It is clear to read that his moral conflict that would have stopped him from further developing the technology had been muted. It is hard to say what the cause of this was, considering he worked in a complex constellation of social and political powers.

PA-98–0520 — Trinity Site explosion, 0.016 second after explosion, July 16, 1945. The viewed hemisphere’s highest point in this image is about 200 meters high. Credit: Berlyn Brixner / Los Alamos National Laboratory

The takeaway for me is clear though. An idea that has the potential to cause so much harm is an idea NOT worth pursuing. This goes for all technology, as well as all intellectual ideas that benefit from causing as much harm as possible in their nature. This primarily means weapons, but can even be extended to concepts of monetization; one prime example is the concept of the ‘dairy industry’. I recently watched a great recording of a lecture by Gary Yourofsky on the vegan belief and his views on the dairy industry. From his viewpoint, there seems to be a system in place that creates profit from selling dairy products to us all, at the expense of animals. Since their milk is naturally intended only for their calves, the question arises: Why do we drink cow’s milk? Do we need it?

The idea to consume another species’ milk illustrates clearly how difficult it is to label an idea as purely good or bad. It is a matter of perspective. In our cultivated perspective, drinking milk is good. At least that’s what we believe. But it impacts negatively on another being, harming it and abusing it, so this would mean the idea is bad. Decide for yourself whether drinking milk is good or bad. I would be happy to get your feedback on your decision.

This short digression is necessary to put things into context. Let’s face it: the only whole unit we know is the planet. It developed as an isolated system in space, and we are part of it. There is a balance to this system that has sustained it for 4.543 billion years, and everything we do on this planet needs to work within the perimeters of sustaining this balance. Because once this balance is out of control, I don’t think we have the means and power to bring it back into stable regions.

Conclusion

Our ideas will disturb our local and global balance per definition, since they are new concepts that are currently outside of our daily reality. To bring them into being means changing the current state. This doesn’t mean that our ideas are generally bad. It means that our ideas have an effect, and we should understand that effect before implementing it. Whether this means that we can create extreme ideas as long as we balance them is to be evaluated.

You might ask, does this mean having the least impact possible? Probably not. Think of the asceticism for a second. Siddharta Gautama, whom we commonly know as Buddha, tried out their lifestyle as a counter-measure to reducing pain and negative impact in the world. A good visual story on this is the movie Little Buddha starring Keanu Reeves. What he took away after sitting under a tree for as long as he could, only living off bird droppings, is that neither opulence nor austerity is a good way to live or better the world.

The reason I am using this example is to draw from it the principle of good will. A life in good will is a good life and will have good effect. In Siddharta’s words, an understanding of good living is found in the Buddhist scriptures. A good example of this is the Sutta Nipata, quoting: Speak only endearing speech, speech that is welcomed. Speech when it brings no evil to others is pleasant.

Zhao Mengfu Monk in a Red Robe, dated 1304 (26 x 52 cm), Liaoning Provincial Museum.

I am not saying that religion and philosophy are the foundation of our work. Yet they can help us understand the ethical, personal, social and environmental implications of it.

What this means for our creative ideas, is the following:

You are free to develop any idea. You are also free to implement any idea. Your idea will have an effect. Consider the effect of your idea. If the effect is positive for others, it is a good idea. If it is negative, it is a bad idea.

This conclusion is an abstract principle and should be treated as such. It helps to apply it with the use of tools such as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, should you be designing products for humans.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs pyramid, Source:https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/3/33/MaslowsHierarchyOfNeeds.svg/2000px-MaslowsHierarchyOfNeeds.svg.png

If your idea fulfils one of the following for the user, or for yourself without impacting negatively on others, it’s a good idea:

  • Physiological needs (Breathing, nutrition, hydration, shelter, clothing) to ensure survival
  • Safety needs (Personal and financial security, health, insurance) to ensure bodily well-being
  • Love and belonging (Friendship, family, intimacy) to ensure emotional well-being
  • Self-esteem (self-respect, acceptance, recognition) to ensure personal prosperity
  • Self-actualization (realizing one’s potential, accomplishment, mastery) to ensure personal motivation
  • Self-transcendence (spirituality, altruism) to ensure a positive impact on the environment

Looking at these needs, there are many areas for us to create ideas within. There is no need to look outside of these areas. And there is surely enough need on the planet for you to use your design skills for helping in these areas, and to make a living of it was well. If you think that all problems of humanity have been solved, turn to animals. They are in need as well. I doubt that you will lack any problems to work on.

If you do feel that it is more important to focus on the financial viability of your ideas, or that technological progress is more relevant, then I would like to ask you the following:

How would you feel, if you were in need? Isn’t basic relief enough?

Answering this question for yourself, in relation to an outside problem you are facing, will help you empathize, in order to base your creative process on the underlying problem. Starting with the need is the first and most important step towards a good idea.

Since an idea is the product of the creator and the affected environment, it’s only natural to include the person that conceives an idea into the equation. That means you, the inventor. Your intention of good will is the starting point for any good idea.

So, to conclusively answer the question in the outset ‘what is a good idea?’, I will say that a good idea is an idea that starts with the good in you and ends with the good of others. May you see this in your own way.

In Summary

To help in evaluating concepts, here is a list of question that can help you define the beneficial nature of your idea:

  • Does it increase joy?
  • Does it increase pleasure?
  • Does it increase wellbeing?
  • Does it relieve pain?
  • Does it reduce concerns?
  • Does it fulfil an essential need?
  • Does it help to survive?
  • Does it provide bodily well-being or safety?
  • Does it provide mental well-being or safety?
  • Does it provide emotional well-being or safety?
  • Is it prosperous?
  • Does it motivate towards self-actualization?
  • Does it help make a person or the world better?
  • Will it have a positive effect?
  • Does it come at a cost?
  • Is it endearing or malicious?

Finally, ask yourself this: What is my intention?

This will reveal the amount of good will in you. A direct indication that you are onto a truly good idea. Start with good will.

Disclaimer

This article was fully written by me in my personal capacity. The opinions expressed in this article are my own and do not reflect the view of the mentioned people or organizations. I wish to express tools and ways of reflection for anyone interested in understanding the mechanics of ideas and what they are capable of doing to us as individuals, our global society and our natural environment.

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