I think of creativity as simply looking at something in a unique way. Creativity may come easier for some than for others, but it is a skill that can be improved. The big obstacle that I see for creative thinking is that we assume too much of what we see around us has to be the way it already is. We get locked into what already exists and impose artificial obstacles. In reality, there aren’t too many things that have to be the way they are.
When I’m working on a project for a client, very few things are set in stone if I really think about it. The budget, for example, and the goals of the project are pretty concrete. Sometimes graphic standards may be, too. Most limits, however, are only limits in my own thinking. Past examples can be a helpful guide—after all, many smart people have probably tried to tackle the same problem—but I try to figure out what the best solution would be if I were starting from scratch. I don’t want to be limited by what has been done before.
Eliminating self-imposed restrictions is a challenge because our brains put those restrictions there to make life easier. The fewer possibilities we have, the easier it is to make decisions. On top of that, change can be risky. After all, if something has been successful in the past, changing it opens yourself up to an embarrassing failure. You’ll look like an idiot if you change something that already works and your new solution doesn’t pan out. But, situations change, time moves on, and new ideas are waiting to be explored.
The 2016 Soyfoods Guide, a publication we produced for the United Soybean Board, is a great example of creative thinking. We had happy clients and eager readers, and we even won a Summit Creative Award for this project. I think our success came from being able to see how things could be, rather than how they are.
The Soyfoods Guide was in existence for many years before COMMUNIQUÉ took over the project and, overall, I think people were happy with it. To the right is The Soyfoods Guide cover from the year before we got involved. Maybe there are some things you’d change about it, but many of the design choices are what you would expect for a project of this nature. First, the cover features an image of soyfoods, which seems like an obvious choice for a publication called The Soyfoods Guide. In fact, I searched through as many years of The Soyfoods Guide as I could find, and a soyfood of one kind or another had always been featured on the cover.
The design itself is fairly understated, which is what you would expect for a publication that is geared toward health professionals. The basic philosophy with design for health professionals is that anything that is too flashy won’t be seen as credible, and there is some merit to this line of thinking. Most professional journals are a good example of that low-key design. Along those lines, “selling” to health professionals is often discouraged. On the cover above, it’s understated, to say the least.
Years of Soyfoods Guides looked similar. When designing a publication, it’s easy to look back at previous issues and simply change out some photos and copy or make other superficial updates, especially if the publication has been seen as successful in the past, and that’s what happened. The flaws become less apparent than if the project were started from scratch. On the 2016 Soyfoods Guide, however, we ditched the existing expectations about what the publication should be.
The new and improved cover is on the left. One obvious change is that there is no image of Soyfoods on the cover of The Soyfoods Guide, which is a pretty big change. While there had always been a soyfood of some type on the cover, we chose to not be so literal. What did the image of food communicate? That this was a publication about soyfoods, which should already be apparent. The image of the joggers, on the other hand, goes further. From that image, the reader can infer that soy is a healthful part of the diet, capable of fueling athletic performance.
Forsaking the low-key design, we opted for a magazine-style layout. The publication name is written as a masthead, and the internal content is teased. Yes, this publication is geared toward health professionals, but we want them to be eager to read it and pass it on to their patients. We included big, bold callouts on the cover. With the previous designs, there wasn’t much incentive to look inside.
Though I’m using the cover as an example, plenty of creative thinking went into other content and layout improvements for the Soyfoods Guide. We’re proud of the results, but we’re not going to fall into the creativity trap, right? The new and improved layout is not the way it has to be. There may be a better way. Maybe the size should be more unique, or maybe there’s room in the budget for a unique paper. Maybe it’s time to ditch paper all together. While the successes can be built upon, even they shouldn’t limit how we think about the future.