Jillian Tamaki

Idea Generation

Oct 19th, 2008

[Below is a handout that for a little talk I gave on concept generation for my class at Parsons. I thought maybe you would enjoy it, since Frank seems to get a great reception when he gets all “talky” and informative.

Following this guide will not guarantee you success, conceptually, professionally, or otherwise. It’s just my way of working and I know for a fact it will not work for everyone. However, I was pretty interested to read that Chris Neal, someone whose work I really admire, follows a similar sort of process.

I do not address many important things in this little blurb, including the importance of aesthetics, appropriateness, marketability, and taste. These things may arguably be more important than conceptual prowess, since I don’t think you need to be especially smart to be successful. Not that I consider myself exceptionally smart.]


Concepts are Ideas. Some ideas are good. Some are bad. Some are offensive or insensitive. Some of them are tried-and-true (but possibly boring). Some are clever and make you laugh. Some rely on intangible things like “atmosphere” and “emotion” for their power. Some live and die on the execution (finish) of the piece.

In order for a piece to be successful, you must communicate your idea to the viewer. The viewer should be charmed, intrigued, empathetic, repulsed, provoked. SOMETHING.

They should be touched enough to want to cut the illustration out of the magazine.

How you choose to connect with viewers is up to you. There is no right or wrong, just successful and unsuccessful. There is space in illustration for personal vision and passions (in fact, illustration usually sucks when they’re absent), but we can’t forget about “the viewer” and our role as communicator.


Plunking yourself down in front of a pad of paper and scraping the inside of your brain is probably not the most effective way of generating ideas. If we only draw upon the images that already exist within our heads, or our own memories and experiences, we are actually quite limited.


– Consume media. Participate in culture. Read books, go to movies, the news, fashion magazines, stupid blogs, etc. Browse the bookstore just for the hell of it. All of this contributes to our personal visual fabric. Soon you will be CONTRIBUTING to this world.

– Find inspiration in museums and the visual arts. Discover the connections between what is going on now and what has already come before. You might be surprised to learn that your favourite artist is really a knockoff of someone from 100 years ago.


– See an amazing photo/illustration/design? Save it. I keep a folder entitled “Reference” on my desktop where I keep anything I find interesting. Sub-folders include: Bodies/Gesture, Chinese Posters, Colours, Faces, Vintage Objects, Maps, Nature. A quick jog through these images can really help you out when you’re stuck for a colour scheme or composition. Or they can form the BASIS of an idea.

– As a professional, one can write-off much of the media you purchase. Books, movies, museum tickets, etc. all become professional expenses.


– Read content (the book, the play, the article) carefully and thoughtfully. Several times. If possible leave a day between reading and starting work on it. Sometimes leaving it to sit in your brain for a while is very helpful, I find.

– WHILE reading content, highlight vivid imagery, key phrases, descriptive passages, notable quotes, and anything else the jumps out at you. Take quick notes or do a quick doodle in the margin if something comes to mind.

– Go find supplementary material, if necessary, to help you parse the content. If you’re doing a cover illustration for War and Peace, it may be helpful to read online discussions, dissertations, reviews, and such. The internet makes this VERY EASY.


– Starting with words is quicker and more fluid because the concepts do not exist as solid representations or images yet. They make the concepts easier to manipulate.

– Use the words you isolated in Step 3 as a foundation. From here, really open your mind and think of it as a game of word association. Metaphors, symbols, verbs, colours, random thoughts and connections… they’re all important, so jot them down. Do not think in specific solutions (but if one pops in your head, make a note of it).


– We think of ourselves as creative people, but the reality is that Nature is way more bizarre and interesting than anything we can come up with. Does your picture involve fish? Research variations. Does the story take place in the Texan desert? Gather some photos. You may see something in one of them that triggers a great idea (who knew cacti could look like that?).

– Try Google Image Search, GettyImages, Corbis, and Flickr. Books too (although I realize time is often short). Remember! You are drawing elements from these sources. Not transcribing or copying.

Step 6: MIX.

– By this point, you probably have some good leads as what looks interesting/what you’d like to explore. Your head is fully in the content. You’ve isolated what is important to communicate. Here are a few things to help you flesh out some usable ideas:

Combine words from the word list, even if the combinations seem strange. Unexpectedness is good.

Do character sketches. Many of them. Look at the word list and perhaps use some of the adjectives/concepts to guide your characterizations.

Sometimes thinking of COMPOSITION or DESIGN first can be helpful. Draw a thumbnail of the pleasing composition or gesture. Assign details to shapes.

Is colour very important? Build a composition to highlight it.

Look back into your Reference folder for inspiration. Sometimes you can fit your material to an existing design, colour scheme, etc.


– The Art Director is infinitely thankful for your research and process steps. They are going to provide her with a unique and interesting final product. But she does NOT want see them (however, I will sometimes include a reference photo to say, “this is the colour scheme I’m thinking of.”) EDIT your ideas, distill them into legible sketches, in the format.

This is my process. Everyone works differently, and maybe there are some fabulous steps out there I have yet to discover. But it’s a very standard way of generating ideas (which is just a fancy of way of “getting the juices flowing”). Try some of these techniques and think of it as an experimenting with concepts as you would experiment with paint. Everyone’s personal style and interests will dictate the exact process (a little less words, a little more character development, for example). One could argue that Step 1 is actually the most important.