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There’s no such thing as a bad idea

As I did at the Create Leicester conference last week, I often start talks by saying that ‘design is a good idea’.

The line between good and bad ideas is very thin. A bad idea in the hands of the right person can easily be tweaked into a good idea.

— Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit

I’ve seen this through my experience as a designer. There is sometimes very little between what makes a good idea, and what becomes labelled or considered a bad idea. The success of every solution, or what you choose to do next depends on the context of what you’re working on, and the people and places that you’re designing for.

Ideas depend on what happens. They depend on what you don’t know as much as the things that you think you do know. 

I like to think about idea generation as exploring and connecting new things, working through a creative process more with a set of principles in mind.

Good ideas (exploring & connecting)…

Open

They are the result of new perspectives. They open new doors, while bad ideas restrict or close doors.

Combine

They’re combinations and connections between smaller ideas. They are things that work together or connect in new ways.

Question

They challenge accepted truths, principles, and the ways things currently work.

Adapt

They’re able to adapt to future changes and new circumstances.

Active

They invite further exploration, and can be a call to action e.g. for testing and learning.

Grow

They generate more ideas which can improve on one another.


Anything that starts off as a good idea still has the potential to be a bad idea. Ideas should be judged on what happens, and history often tells us a different story to how ideas are initially evaluated and prioritised.

The failure of a good idea is often in the the detail of implementation. For example, this is why what looks on the surface to be a potentially good set of policy intentions in government can quickly turn bad.

Because good ideas get lost or compromised in implementation, maintaining and sustaining good ideas is as important as creating them. First principles are important here, understanding what the most important component parts of an idea are. In government you might think about this as being able to break down the core components of policy intent (understanding intended policy outcomes), versus getting lost in policy detail. Arguably policy detail is where many good ideas get lost or are found with very little life left in them.

Big ideas as collections of smaller ideas

A big idea is essentially having a clear picture of what you’re working towards. You might call this a vision, or being able to describe or show people what the future state of something could look like.

When you start here, a big idea is better than having a big plan. People get behind ideas, they are inspired, engaged and take action because of ideas.

The important thing is that you don’t need to wait for one big idea. Big ideas are usually collections of lots of smaller ideas that connect in new or interesting ways. They are how you wrap and combine different things together.

Eventually the success of a set of connected ideas is often in a name, or how you communicate what something will do. This then gives people the bigger thing that they can get hold of as a single concept or ‘model’.

New orders

I liked the definition of innovation in this blog post

“…innovation isn’t about making something new, it is about destroying the existing order of things.”

This is how I think a creative process adds value as a way of working. If you want to create something new it’s about deconstructing the world as it exists, and being able to create new types of order (‘destroying’ is a little extreme here, but it is about taking apart the accepted order of how things already work).

Thinking and working in this way is an opportunity to reconnect things in new ways that can lead to new business models, as well as shifting expectations and perceptions for how things could work in the future. 

Good ideas don’t rest on what already exists. And without a degree of risk in how we make new connections it’s hard to argue that something is a good idea. Good ideas are intertwined with how things change, and anything else feels like standing still.

Ben Holliday is an experienced design leader, writer and speaker. This is his blog (started in 2005). You can follow all of Ben's blog posts by subscribing to the RSS feed, or follow him on Twitter for more regular updates.