Developing Ideas

There are numerous ways to develop your ideas. Everyone has their own process for cultivating their creativity. This section outlines a few of the methods you can try in figuring out the work that you want to do. Spend time to reflect on your ideas. Think of the form, content, context and research of your work. Analyse your processes and methods. Try writing a list of what you want to achieve and how you can develop and move your work forward. Challenge yourself and question what you are doing to be clear of your values and beliefs in your work.

Case Studies: What is your creative process?

Pippa Murphy, composer and workshop leader

My creative process generally follows a similar pattern and is easiest to describe in 3 distinct phases:

  • Creating ideas, sketching and research
  • Developing ideas
  • Structuring and finalizing

The 1st and 3rd phases are the most exciting part of the creative process and the 2nd part often involves some discipline, graft and long walks.

Creating Ideas

There are many ways in which I start the compositional process. It can best be described as a ‘gathering’ of material; sounds, images, texts, myths and other inspirations. I often draw on specific sounds or images and search for both similar and contrasting material. At this stage I try not to make too many value judgments and allow the material to exist out of context with where I imagine I may be going. This is important for me, and it helps free up any negative thoughts that prevent me from working.

I use sketchbooks to write ideas, patterns, single words, motifs and structures. My pin board is an ever-evolving selection of postcards, maps, texts, fabrics and structure sketches. I try not to listen to other music at this stage and save it for when I’m feeling a bit less enthusiastic!

I always have a working title, which I allow to be simple, maybe even crass, but the piece never ends with the same title.

Developing Ideas

With both instrumental and digital material I start to put elements together by layering, adding, repeating, reversing, half speed, double speed. They exist as elements at this stage, perhaps an opening phrase or a build up and climax, or a texture, or a melodic line.

When I’m using recordings and processing them on my laptop I find it really important to name files in a way that helps me draw parallels, comparisons, contrasts and sometimes even random juxtapositions.

This part of the creative process is often the ‘sticky’ stage for me. I look and relook at sketches and unused material, and create new material to add to the general mixing palette. I listen to many different types of music and make new connections with the developed material and start trying out new structures.

Structuring and finalising

I am a bit of a ‘structure-head’ and this is the point where I concentrate on drawing the different elements together and really working at the structure of it. I do a lot of swapping and changing and writing bridging material.

Most of my compositions involve elements of a ‘journey’. This could be a physical exploration of a landscape, or a ‘mood map’ or maybe a series of imaginary spaces. This is not necessarily important to understanding the work but helps me structure and progress the developed ideas into something more fluid.

I hate writing programme notes, but I love searching various dictionaries, thesaurus and exploring the etymology of words whilst coming up with a title.

Helena Hunter, artist

Usually my work begins with an inkling, a hunch, an idea or a collection of ideas that are unformed, undeveloped and difficult to articulate. So, at the beginning of the process I devise as many ways as possible to try and get these ideas out of my head and into reality, or into some kind of form so I can start developing and working with it.

Ask yourself questions:

  • Why am I creating this work?
  • How do I feel about the world I live in?
  • What do I believe in and why?
  • Why am I working in my particular art form?
  • What are my priorities, what inspires me?
  • Practical Research and 'Play'

Often I go into the studio with a set of questions, a selection of materials, and a number of practical tasks that I hope will attempt to answer my questions. In some ways what I do in the studio never really answers the questions, but it is the search for an answer that generates the work.

Reflection and Self-Critique

I always record what I do in the studio. I think it is important to be able to see what form the work is taking, to evaluate it and gauge if I am moving forward. I think it is also important to learn to critique your work, to see it objectively to be your own critic.

Play with words

It is important to develop a language, or a way of speaking about your work. To be able to articulate and contextualise your concepts, content and form. This is useful in terms of understanding and situating your practice, but also in terms of writing applications, proposals, and marketing text. If you can’t talk about your work, then how are you going to get it out there? How are you going to allow programmers, funders, producers and audiences to understand your work, if you can’t write or talk about it?


An exercise that has been really useful to me is to map the landscape of my current thinking. I usually buy a roll of wallpaper lining or a huge white paper tablecloth and a marker pen, and I start to draw out my current ideas and thoughts. The aim is to almost spew out onto the paper what is inspiring me at the moment, what am I thinking about what are all the ideas boiling around in my head. It is like mapping a landscape, and can be quite chaotic, I usually stick on pictures/images and bits of text; sometimes I include objects, CDs and DVDs, drawings, photos. I like the chaos of this mapping, and it is great to step back when I am finished and view it all and think OK so what do I do with all this?

Free Mind is mapping software that can help you organise your ideas on the computer. 

Wordle is a tool for generating “word clouds” from text that you provide.

Bob Levene, Artist

[My creative process] has changed over the years, early on i would often set up a camera, microphone and monitor and play around with found objects or what ever was to hand and things would evolve from that. After a while I would decide to force myself out of what had become this comfort zone. I would put myself in an outdoor environment, which was a complete contrast to what I was used to. It really forced me to see my practice differently. At the same time I would often be reading, watching and learning about related subjects to the experiments I was doing, and both of these processes feed off each other. One thing that has been pretty constant in my approach is playing and experimenting. I try things out because I want to know what it does, how it looks or sounds or even how it works. I am curious and I like to play and thats what keeps the whole thing fun and interesting. 

Can you give an example?

I did a two month residency at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, where I worked outdoors in the landscape, I knew this residency was going to happen about a year prior. I wanted to make the most of the distances the park covered. Hovering over the Park was a large TV transmitter tower, so I started reading in more detail about early forms of long distance communications (i.e. beacons, optical telegraph etc.), as well as the birth of the telephone and transatlantic communications. I was already in the middle of studying for my amateur radio license (just as a way to learn more about radio and the ham radio culture). By the time I got to the residency my mind was buzzing with information and ideas for experiments to undertake, it all came together and fed into a new body of work around mapping, distance, human scale.

Felicity Ford, sound artist

The way the work develops and the way my creative process unfolds really depend on the project involved; different projects require different approaches, and also projects have different life-spans. Some ideas are very quick and others take months or years to evolve – the long ideas – and in that case, the creative process naturally has more stages. Generally I begin with a concept. A lot of my work has a conceptual basis, so words are a good place to start. Once I have nailed the basic concept, I quite quickly try to express the idea in images and sometimes in sounds, to see if the feeling in the original idea will work in the end project, and to understand which mediums to use for which parts of the project. I use my blog as a kind of online sketchpad too, so if an idea is in the early stages I might float it there and get some feedback on it, and I talk to a lot of people about my ideas. Once the idea is sketched out in different forms and I feel it’s worth pursuing, it’s important to get the timeline and the making schedule drawn up because there will always be a massive build involved, whether it’s the editing and scripting of a radio show, or something physical that needs to be made.

Can you give an example?

In the case of The Domestic Soundscape Cut and Splice Podcast series that I produced last year for Sound and Music, I started by examining the brief. In this case, the brief was to contextualise some of the work that was showcased there in my own way, and to provide a kind of theoretical background to the festival. The first stage in the creative process involved listening to the work that was going to be presented at the festival and examining the themes and subtexts within it. I walked around town listening to CDs with headphones on a lot. The first part of the creative process here was research and listening, which is a little different than in other projects, but I decided it was what the project required.

Once I had an idea of the themes that were going to be important to the Podcast series, I started thinking about who else should be included in the show to contextualise the work. 

I also thought it was important to include creative experiments in the final Podcast series so that theory, thought, experimentation and creative play were combined in a sort of total approach to the domestic soundscape. To this end, I organised ways of connecting practical experimentation with ideas in the show, such as a mixtape swap I organised through my blog, a tapespondence project which I organised through the yahoo phonography group, and the sonic wallpaper workshops which I conducted at the Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture at Middlesex. I wanted things to happen because of the Podcast series, so that there were clear links between ideas and making. And I also decided I wanted to be able to illustrate ideas wherever possible with recording experiments conducted around my own home.

This last practical consideration meant I needed a phase of time where I could be at home, undisturbed, investigating the space as a kind of studio or thought-laboratory. In the context of the Podcasts being about the domestic soundscape, it seemed ridiculous to create the work in any other way! I set up my schedule as part of my thinking for the project; I was like ‘this needs a big phase of me just being in the house, trying out all the ideas, recording everything, and working in a very immersive way,’ and so that was what I did; in terms of my creative process that was like studio time.

The final stage was the scripting for each show and then of course listening through to the running order. It was very like making a mixtape in terms of deciding which thing should follow on from which thing, and once I had that sorted out, I wrote the script, then recorded it, then revised it a few times. There is always a jump between written and spoken language, and so there were a lot of paragraphs that needed to be chopped down, or words that needed changing.

Finally, I took each show for a walk and listened through on my headphones to make sure I was happy with the levels, the links, the sounds and the atmosphere in each show. 

Vicki Bennett, multimedia collage artist

At an early stage I consider what the output form(s) may take - what kind of platform this may be presented on, and also the kind of audience that I may be speaking to. It is important for me to know who I'm engaging with in order to make the work communicative, even if the communication may end up on many levels, and the project may split into a few different forms. 

The research and development is probably fairly similar for a lot of creative people. Although my creative process is personal to me, we still all hunt and gather, process and output. I frequently use found material (footage - moving image, sound). I would consider myself an urban folk artist. Xerox culture has deeply imbedded itself into my way of working, as has Google culture - making projects based around search words and lists. It didn't start with Google, I used a Thesaurus to dream up new projects, working in tangents through word association, not to mention puns, which feature heavily in my work titles and content. I still frequently consult a Thesaurus when thinking up new ideas.

Firstly, I have to go and find the material, to know if I can acquire what I have in mind, that it actually even exists. I have to know that material is either abundantly available or if I can arrange to access an archive or other private resource. This is the stage where I know whether my work is going to be shaped by limitation or abundance of resources, which often results in two entirely different kinds of work.

Creatively, I am generally process driven. It is always hard to say what you are going to do before you do it, and I've complained before that it's been necessary to have to explain something on paper before starting on it, for the practical/material reasons mentioned above. However, writing about what you want to do actually really helps you focus on the task in hand, and I use paper and pen all the way through the process so I don't get lost in the ether. Verbally being able to explain your processes will never help the work stand on it's own two feet, and an essay should never be essential to the work (unless that's the point of it), but it does help you work it out in your own mind. 

Once I have my material, I start scaling down what I have available in order to process it in my mind. I collect 20 times more than I need. I do this by either writing lists on paper or taking freeze frames from different scenes and printing them out on paper. I then cut all the paper out and lay it all over the carpet! Then I start to make visual and mental associations between the content and stick it together with sellotape. It's rather like playing a game of Consequences, but with yourself. Externalising this process stops my mind from becoming overloaded. At this stage I start to group subjects and ideas into folders and start editing on my computer. If I am working with audio I don't use paper so much but make little piles of audio files on my ProTools timeline.

At this point, I keep throwing things out until the material flows together, and then I start actually working on the piece as an actual composition - whether audio or moving image, either way it's a composition made of certain parts. It has to contain both harmony and discord, there needs to be a way in for the listener/viewer.

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