Why not settling for what you have can be a good thing.

Imagine: after spending some time thinking of ideas for a creative assignment (advertising/graphic design/business planning etc.), you are mentally exhausted.

You have a few of them on the table: scribbles, sketches, doodles. Inside you softly concede that among those ideas, none are outstanding. (This requires critical evaluation of your own and/or your groupmates’ ideas.)

You proceed to do one of the following:

  1. Pick the one that you feel best with or could agree with the most (i.e. you feel least guilty over choosing)
  2. Pick the one the you feel would get the best grade/feedback from the client (i.e. the least chance of getting stick)
  3. Pick the one that most group members can agree upon, like good ol’ democracy

Whichever one of the above you or your group may pick, it probably would be a bad choice. Not that the idea chosen might necessarily suck, but this inhibits us from excelling in the work that we take pride in. This is called satisficing.

According to Matthew E. May, the author of In Pursuit of Elegance: Why The Best Ideas Have Something Missing, the word “satisfice” combines “satisfy” and “suffice” that Nobel Laureate Herbert Simon coined over fifty years ago in his book Models of Man to describe the default decision-making process by which we generally accept the first option that offers an acceptable payoff and stop looking for the best way to solve the problem. While satisficing helps us make it through the day, it’s deadly when you’re trying to design a compelling solution.

So when a situation like the above happens, don’t just go back to the drawing board. Break out of the thinking process and patterns you have been used to. Mark the existing ideas in your head and make a commitment, for the time being, to leave it as is. It helps to stash it away and making it clear verbally that you will move on; depart your port of call and sail out to the ocean and explore and fish again. Don’t look back.

How do you do this? May gives an interesting example on his article (the one that I have linked you to), which I will paraphrase a bit here.

Suppose your client is a kitchen appliance company, and the brief is to market a new convection oven in the Tropics of south-east Asia.

  1. Go to the dictionary, open it to any page, and pick the first noun on the page—for example: cow.
  2. Now brainstorm as many characteristics, concepts, and ideas that relate to “cow.”—for example: grass, milk, beef, black and white, brown, moo, field, herd, gentle, and docile.
  3. Pick one or two of those associations and relate them back to your problem. Use them to spark creativity and new ways of thinking about ovens. This will help you get off the normal path of ideas associated with appliances—for example, the word “black and white” might spur the marketing ‘big idea’ of ‘food is either good or bad, there’s no in-between’ or ‘what makes food great?’. Or ‘brown’ together with ‘gentle’ may conjure up some great graphic and semiotic ideas about food roasted to perfection, given most ovens’ tendency to be too strong and over-cook your favourite slab of meat!
  4. Now use this technique with the real problem that you’re trying solve.

Dr KC Yeoh, my mentor/lecturer at Graphic Communications class back in 2008, recognised the importance of not satisficing and helped lift the standard of many a student’s work. Somewhat regrettably though, I notice that not all students understood what he was doing, agreed with him, or adopted this very useful philosophy for themselves. I hope this article will help you take another look at how you approach creative work!

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