We are often trapped by the brief. Writers or art directors want to fulfill the brief, but it can set them on a limited train of thought – like the time I found myself with a strict brief from a Dubai TV station.
They had asked me to deliver creative workshops that I had developed for my students at Central Saint Martins.
My task seemed simple enough but in transpired that there was a surprise in store. The TV station flew me to Dubai and showered me with luxury, a room in the Dubai Hilton, a driver and limo, expenses, the works. I felt obligated to them and had prepared thoroughly. I didn’t want to go all that way and discover I’d left out something important.
They had rented a conference room in a five-star hotel for me to deliver my workshop. As I was led in to meet the production team, the manager turned to me and said, ‘Oh, by the way, instead of the workshops, we’d like you to help us create a new soap based in Dubai.’ It was a bombshell. My preparation was wasted.
I had to create a new TV soap. I’d never done anything like that before. I found myself standing in front of thirty TV professionals. They were looking at me impatiently and expectantly.
I stood in front of the eager production team. I gave a short talk about myself but in reality I was stalling for time, trying to work out what to do. The TV station were struggling to create a new soap opera because their ideas were predictable and dull. They wanted me to resurrect them. I said it would be easier to scrap their ideas and start fresh. Better to think new ideas than waste time trying to salvage old ones. This annoyed them but I knew it was the only way.
The team of scriptwriters, cameramen, production staff, soundmen, set designers, costume designers and more had attitudes that stifled creative thinking: ‘I have been doing this for years. I’m an expert. I have been trained to do this properly, I know exactly what I’m doing.’ They wanted to do things the way they had always done them. I knew I couldn’t work with them until they opened their minds to new methods.
I swapped their roles. I asked the cameramen to write some script ideas, the costume designers to write up characters, the soundmen to think of locations and so on. They were furious.
I had to convince them to give it a try. Eventually they opened up and had a go. Fear of failure vanished because the weight of expectation had been lifted. They no longer had a reputation to protect because they were not doing what they’d been trained to do. They improvised. They played around. New, original ideas poured out. They had fun. They were liberated.
We created some new scripts with exciting characters, unusual settings and innovative plot lines. They wanted to get actors to rehearse the roles and start filming ‘properly’. I pointed out that that was what they usually did. Instead we filmed a rough episode with them acting the roles. They ad-libbed unusual and interesting ideas as we filmed.
They developed the rough ideas further after I’d returned to England. The soap went on air. It was unique and completely different for Dubai. The process determined the end result.
A writer is often under pressure to produce a focused piece of writing within a deadline. They want to get the award-winning idea as soon as possible. I know this is a common problem from the workshops I deliver at advertising agencies and from emails from copywriters. Having a specific target makes them too focused, too quickly. It often gives them a mental block, narrows their thinking or makes their work less imaginative and original. Like railway tracks, these are fixed and make it difficult to move in different directions.
Copywriters become transfixed by the goal – for instance to write a TV ad for a car. They immediately start thinking of ideas about cars and how those ideas might fit the format of a TV ad. This limits their thinking and therefore limits the possibility of them arriving at an original idea.
I urge them to do a series of exercises that get them to explore themes that have nothing to do with their subject. One benefit is that they relax because they’re not focused on the end product. When you’re at ease ideas flow more freely. Another benefit is that inspiration can come from all kinds of unlikely sources. Once you have a specific target, your mind is closed to all other possibilities. If your mind is open then ideas can spring up from all kinds of areas.
If you have a tight deadline, there is even more pressure to focus on the end result. But it is still important to spend at least half of your time exploring a wide range of subjects. The most original ideas come from the most unusual sources. Eventually the idea can be honed into the finished piece that fits the brief. It’s important to cast your net wide and catch as many fish as possible before selecting the most interesting one.
Rod Judkins is the author of The Art of Creative Thinking and Change Your Mind: 57 Ways to Unlock Your Creative Self.