Making is Thinking: How to Grow Your Ideas

Photo by Willi Heidelbach

Photo by Willi Heidelbach

In a time when websites and coding are in demand, it might seem outdated for a graphic design student to spend time learning the manual process of letterpress. However, a class I took in art school taught me otherwise. If there is one thing I learned from that class it was this:

Making is Thinking

And letterpress is a great way to teach this lesson. In order to produce anything it takes planning, patience, and knowledge of your materials. I rolled out ink, mixed colors, and handpicked individual letters to make words. I inserted wooden blocks (called furniture) and locked them in place. I cut my paper, inked the press, and rolled the paper on top of the letters. I looked at what I got, then I moved the letters around and did it again. If there was one word misaligned, the whole print was trash. You can’t press undo in letterpress.

So you rearrange the furniture and start again.

At first, there was something frustrating about the slow nature of the process. I wanted everything to be done quickly and to see the results fast. But spending quality time with my subject matter (typography and color, space and balance) gave me a deeper understanding of it than I had ever had before. It also gave me a deeper appreciation for all of its quirks and nuances (have you ever tried to evenly align 100-year-old wooden letters with ink??) For me, this deliberate process opened up new ways of thinking, seeing, and simplifying.

At a typical art school, after completing a draft, the class pins up work for critique. Your peers and professors gather around and look. They rip it apart, turn it around, and rehash it. They express their likes, dislikes, and pose constructive (or not so constructive) ways to change it. A good critique is essentially an invitation to step back and creatively and analytically question what is there.

This is the same editing process that writers go through. It is the same process that designers go through. It’s iterative and, at once, both broad and narrow. But how does the making is thinking process apply to a business or innovation?

In our work, we apply a process similar to that of the art school critique to each one of our projects. After each round of service or business model prototyping we, too, have a critique. Only here, your peers are the user and the critique is manifested as co-creation. A project team also has to spend quality time with their materials—instead of metal type and ink, it’s going to the field to know the user.

Internally, you might share an idea by visualizing it on a white board, spreadsheet, PowerPoint, or sketching it on a piece of scratch paper (a la napkin pitch). Making something at low-fidelity invites other people to share, understand, and perhaps most importantly question your thinking (see Surabhi's post on team collaboration called Gimme a C+). Making something physical is the first step in improving it and moving forward, a key component to growth and innovation.

Leave a comment below to tell us about how you share and grow your ideas.

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