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The Creative Columnist: It’s not just about pretty pictures. Think conceptually!

Pete Clayton is Made in Plymouth’s Creative Columnist; an illustrator, animator and graphic designer based in Plymouth. Not a born native to the city and region, but a fully bred Plymouthian who’s lived here most of his 41 years… man and boy! In work, Pete’s purpose as a multidisciplinary creative and writer is to share his love of what he does and in turn give people an inspiring creative lift. Outside of work, Pete is a father of 2 to Jack and Mia who love a family outing to The Box or a trip to the Barbican for pasties and iced fingers. Today he discusses coming up with ideas and concepts

In my college (AUP) and university days some 20+ years ago, the opinion of “ideas before pretty pictures” was drummed into me. Particularly at university, myself and fellow students worried about having the best-coloured mockup to present our work. To be honest, my course lecturers weren’t too fussed about this, as long as there was an idea and concept present.

This opinion lives in my head rent-free now, though it did take a while for it to take hold. Some years, in fact. I used to think design simply had to look “cool” and be in vogue. Over time, I realised this isn’t the case, especially when I took up illustration as a profession. It was here that I truly grasped that ideas and concepts form the basis of any great piece of work, more so than the finished style. Indeed, for me, that’s what separates an illustrator from someone who can draw. Don’t get me wrong; there is 100% a time for both. My Instagram feed is full of lovely and beautiful drafts-people, but what really gets me going are the ideas behind a piece, making me think, “Oh, that’s clever” or “I wish I’d thought of that!”.

Without ideas, a piece can fall down.

In any case, the process of coming up with those ideas and concepts is my favourite part of the creative problem-solving journey. For me, that involves lots of paper, a pencil, and doodling away, letting ideas and scribbles simmer on the page and in the brain. Once I have the ideas and a loose visual outline nailed down, then it’s time to execute, assemble, and colour on the computer. Don’t get me wrong; the materials and execution can help sell and convey the idea. But without an idea in the first place, the piece can fall down.

Ideas-laced work stands out far more and has more substance for me. I’d encourage you, whatever your discipline, to consider this. It also challenges you and makes you stand out beyond your mark-making capabilities. Furthermore, when I’m approached for an illustrative commission, clients are hiring me for my brain as well as my hand. They know I’m an ideas-led creative and that I can bring more to the table than just creative execution. This, I have found, makes me far more employable and gives me an edge over the next creative. So where you can, try and inject a bit of substance into your work and let your work say something beyond how it looks.

Make minds smile.

For further reading, take a look at the well-known design book: A Smile in the Mind: Witty Thinking in Graphic Design. Though predominantly a graphic design-focused publication, it has a massive collection of visual and witty eye candy, which does exactly what it says on the cover: it makes your mind smile… and that’s really the point.

When it comes to commissions, I totally feel that if you say something with conceptual wit in your visual storytelling, you can massively stop people in their tracks and help clients raise awareness or sell products. Whatever the case may be, commission or daily practice, ideas and the ability to convey them well will allow people to connect better with your work and make you stand out more as a creative practitioner.


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