Ideas are a messy business. They’re maddening and unpredictable. There are dead ends, wrong turns and all manner of false starts. To get our heads around them, in 2018 we created the first ever WeTransfer Ideas Report, asking 10,000 creatives about how, when and where they get their best ideas.
But we couldn’t leave it at that. You see, having an idea is only half the battle. Once the lightning bolt of inspiration has hit, that’s when the real work begins.
This year we asked 20,000 creatives, doubling last year’s data, about how their ideas grow. We crunched the numbers and took note of the trends, comparing different countries, age groups, disciplines and work environments. So what does it mean to deal in the business of ideas? How many do you need before you strike gold? And does a great idea mean money in the bank or a better-looking planet?
Enough questions. It’s time for some answers.
Illustrations by Neil Dvorak
Conventional wisdom suggests you’re either an ideas person or you’re not. You think inside the box, or you venture outside of it. But in reality, it’s more of a numbers game.
Most people (72%) end up using less than half of the ideas they have. In France, one in four people use less than 10% of their ideas and in the US, Mexico and South Africa, that number is closer to one in 10. It’s a startling hit rate that suggests the more ideas we have, bad ones included, the more likely we are to strike gold.
How many of your ideas do you end up using?
“We need to build on ideas as opposed to tearing them down.”
Podcaster, writer, author and illustrator Debbie Millman on why good ideas shouldn’t always be easy.
I worked on the merchandise and promotion for Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones in the early 2000s and it was a project we were so excited about. One of the lead designers was a real Star Wars aficionado and had all the collectibles, so when we went into the pitch we really thought we had the right team and the right ideas. We got to Skywalker Ranch in California and we were high-fiving ourselves in the parking lot because we were so proud of our work. But when we went into the meeting they hated everything. We realized early on it was not going the way we expected and we did not anticipate the obstacles that might come up when presenting our ideas – something creatives don’t always think about. There and then I asked if we could stop the meeting and come back in a week with new ideas. That saved the project. They told me they were about to fire us. We took the feedback on board, we worked on a lot more new ideas and we blew them away.
This is where strategy helps designers, and it can be much harder than the ideas part. Strategy helps you to take away some of the subjectivity in evaluating ideas. I think it’s very interesting that as designers, our clients are non-designers but they’re expected to weigh in on our ideas as if they’re educated about how those ideas actually come to life. If you have a strategy underpinning your idea you ultimately will be more successful because then it’s not just a beauty contest between ideas.
I don’t think there’s any formula for a good idea, either. I think a lot of them happen when you’re not expecting them. I don’t have one specific way of coming up with ideas, but I do tend to get sparks that excite me when I’m walking with a clear mind. I think that when you’re in a brainstorm the “yes, and...” mentality is better than the “no, but...” because we need to build on ideas as opposed to tearing them down. It’s much easier to tear down ideas than spend the time to build them into something great.
And if you’re struggling to come up with more ideas, then keep struggling. A lot of people turn away from struggle, but why is it so bad? We struggle to learn to walk when we’re babies, we struggle through our whole lives, so why should we think that coming up with good ideas is easy? If it were easy then everyone would do it! Everything that is meaningful takes effort. We have to work hard on our ideas, and if that includes struggling then lean into it because, in the end, it’s all worth it.
Illustrations by Neil Dvorak
When it comes to pursuing a new idea, it seems sharing isn’t always caring. The creative process is often perceived as collaborative, yet only 18% of creatives will consult their ideas with friends, family or colleagues.
Meanwhile over a third of people choose to go with their gut. It’s the answer that came out on top with under-18s as well as with artists, musicians, filmmakers and dancers. People working in design, marketing and tech, on the other hand, prefer to put in the research to decide what’s worthy.
How do you figure out if an idea is worth pursuing?
“Trust your gut, but be open to whatever happens. All you can do is your best.”
David Uzochukwu, one of the world’s most exciting young photographers, on creating space for yourself.
Usually I dive straight into things. But I don’t often commit to a project unless I know what the concept is. I’m represented by an agency and the first thing they always ask is, “what’s the budget?” The only thing I ever ask is,“what’s the concept?”
Most of the time I’m on a solo trip and I trust my gut. Whatever I shoot I sketch out before and then that image is what I pursue when I am shooting. Then I see how things develop. Sometimes I stick close to how I imagined it in the beginning, but sometimes things just take an entirely different path. I don’t think I could embark on a creative project without really knowing at least where I want to go; I need to have a goal even if I have to eventually readjust it. Everything that leads up to the moment where you press the shutter and making sure that you’re conscious of what you’re doing and that you’re feeling it – I think those are the most important things.
Usually you do feel it. There tends to be a certain amount of space for things to develop in a good and bad way. Sometimes a concept sounds amazing and then so many things happen and in the end it can become like Frankenstein’s monster. And then sometimes things aren’t that exciting in the beginning but you managed to make the most of it and it turned out well. I think you need to trust your gut, but at the same time be open to whatever happens. All you can do is try your best.
Creating the space for yourself and challenging yourself mentally is nice. I think it makes me happy. There’s something about engaging and stimulating all parts of yourself. It feels like I’m living a more well-rounded life somehow.
Illustrations by Neil Dvorak
While the classic considerations of a good idea – “Is it original?” (52%) “Is it relevant?” (40%) – still come out on top, it’s promising to see a creative culture where profit and building a better world go hand-in-hand.
When thinking about making an idea happen, “Will it make the world better?” just tops “Can I make money with it?” (27% vs 26%). It’s a heartening stat that reflects the growing number of creatives using their platforms for social good and finding their voices as activists.
What do you ask yourself when thinking about bringing an idea to life?
“You will not regret finding something that makes you want to wake up in the morning and make a difference in the world.”
Oscar and Grammy award-winning musician and activist John Legend on how creativity can help to change the world.
I’m glad so many artists and creators want to do something more than just make money. I think they all realize that we are all better off when we care about our neighbors and when we practice public love, a.k.a justice. I encourage everyone to listen to each other, to learn from each other and to fight for each other’s rights.
Artists can play a very defined role as activists, because we aren’t tethered to election cycles, legislative bargaining or policy games. We have both a public platform and the ability to talk above and move past the political silos to change the entire framing of our social problems. Furthermore, we can play a role in speaking out on causes and injustices that we care about.
In our current political climate, we have a responsibility to use our voices and platforms to help shape the world we want to live in. I found my voice as an activist through my personal experiences and now I strive to use that voice. A few years back I took a look at my life and the resources and influence I had and found my own way to push for change in the world.
Whatever your passion is, follow it. I guarantee you will not regret finding something that makes you want to wake up in the morning and make a difference in the world. I know I don’t.
Illustrations by Neil Dvorak
Coming in at 42%, work is the biggest thing distracting people from their ideas. That’s a worrying number given almost 90% of our respondents work in creative fields which rise and fall on the power of good ideas.
Jobs in tech, illustration and advertising are most likely to get in the way, and work seems to get more distracting the older we get. Unsurprisingly social media isn’t far behind with 38% of 18 to 25-year-olds citing it as their biggest distraction. It seems we need to rethink the way we work and play, particularly how we spend time in the office.
What distracts you from coming up with creative ideas?
“Like most people, my biggest distraction is wasting time online.”
Best-selling author and cultural critic Roxane Gay on how she avoids distraction to make the most of her time.
The best use of my time is being with my partner and family. Work will come and go, but the most important people in my life deserve my time right now. I’m a bit of a workaholic, but I’m not going to sacrifice quality of life to it because, at the end of the day, work doesn’t keep you warm at night.
Like most people, my biggest distraction is probably wasting time online, on Instagram, Twitter, Goodreads... Just reading news articles. The ways in which the internet has connected all of us and has made it possible for people that look like me to break through in the writing world is invaluable. I think most days it takes more than it gives, but I certainly have a very enthusiastic fan base. On good days they remind me of how lucky I am.
Travel takes up a lot of my time. I look forward to it, depending on where I’m going and what I have to do when I get there. Even though sometimes I dread it, I try not to ever take it for granted that I get to pretty much do what I love all around the world. It’s a dream.
I’m pretty terrible at deadlines. I miss them a lot as I’m busy and I say yes to everything because, like most writers, I think this is going to be the last opportunity. I am definitely someone who grinds at the last minute. Oftentimes, what I need just magically kicks in when it’s go time.
I started baking a few years ago. It’s something I do while writing, because there’s often a lot of waiting when things have to rise. I like the precision of it: you have to measure and get temperatures right and it requires quite a good deal of concentration, which is very relaxing because it forces me to focus in a way that few other things do. I’m not very good at it, but I enjoy it. I’m trying to master croissants right now. It’s kind of a disaster. I think every time you see someone who makes croissants, you should just demonstrate a great deal of gratitude.
The biggest misperception about writing is that it’s glamorous, because it just isn’t. The travel and the events can be, but a lot of the time it’s just sitting at your computer staring at a Word doc and just doing the work. I wish more people understood that it really is work. And it’s great work, but it’s not magic. It doesn’t happen by accident.
The American Dream is all about green, but we’re not just talking money here. Turns out 37% of Americans are actually concerned about whether their ideas will make the world a better place.
Rumor has it, Kylie Minogue’s classic earworm is about a budding idea that just won’t quit. It’s a common phenomenon, but especially true for photographers, 52% of whom are likely to keep going at an idea until it comes to fruition.
Most creatives place their partners low on their list of distractions. Not in China though, where 20% said their partners get in the way of creativity. Who says romance is dead?
When deciding if an idea is worth pursuing, freelancers are the ones with all the questions: "Can I make money with it?" (31%), "Will it make the world better?" (30%), "Do I have the skills to pull this off?" (28%), "Will it teach me something new?" (26%). Hey, don’t worry – you got this!
Ideas Report creator Rob Alderson digs into this year's findings, and suggests a rethink when it comes to a simple good-bad binary.
If Kickstarter is a vibrant hub of creative ideas people really believe in, then Flopstarter is its evil twin. The brainchild of British artist Oli Frost, Flopstarter is billed as “a platform for bad ideas.” These include a chat app that forwards every message you send on to your partner, “reverse Viagra” which induces hallucinations of your parents having sex to stifle your own horniness, and “a bowl that’s almost flat, like a plate, but it’s a bowl.”
Flopstarter is my favorite sort of project; super silly on the surface but actually quite thought-provoking. What makes a bad idea? What is the relationship between bad and good ideas? And what role do bad ideas play in the creative process?
These questions are at the center of the second annual WeTransfer Ideas Report. Last year we asked 10,000 creatives how, where and when they get good ideas. This year we decided to focus on how ideas develop. How many ideas do we need? How do we work out whether an idea is any good? And what do we consider when we think about an idea’s potential?
The headline finding from the 20,000 people who completed this year’s survey is that you need more ideas than you think. Lots more. Most people (72%) end up using half of their ideas or fewer. Nearly one in five people said they use less than 10% of the ideas they have – a beautifully terrible hit rate.
It’s helpful to think of creativity as a two-step process. The first step is idea generation, which we looked at in last year’s report. The second step is to evaluate the pool of ideas you have and select the ones you want to work on.
Now for the science part. Back in 2009, researchers from INSEAD and the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School wrote a study called Idea Generation and the Quality of the Best Ideas. They divided students into different groups and challenged them to come up with ideas for new products which were then scored on a quality scale for how innovative they were.
Their findings were pretty definitive. The group that had more ideas had better ideas. This makes sense – the bigger the pool you have to choose from, the more intense the competition and the higher the standard of ideas that get through to the next stage. As the authors of the report put it, the five tallest people in a city of one million people will be taller than the five tallest people in a city of 10,000 people.
But the researchers also noted the importance of variance, which is the range of ideas across the quality spectrum. As they write, “the extremes are what matter, not the average or the norm… In most innovation settings, an organization would prefer 20 bad ideas and one outstanding idea to 21 merely good ideas.”
Which brings us back to Oli Frost, reverse Viagra and flat bowls. Flopstarter is funny because it sets up its products as the inverse of the good ideas that people are trying to get off the ground on Kickstarter.
But seeing it as a single continuum, with bad ideas at one end and genius ideas at the other is wrong. It’s time to stop thinking in binary terms of good and bad ideas. All ideas help frame and contextualize each other, like pool balls on a table mid-game. When you step up to assess your options, some shots are simpler than others. Some are risky, some are predictable, some seem impossible but open up at a later stage.
We believe it’s time to rehabilitate bad ideas as a fundamental part of the creative process. In fact – when we take variance into account – the worse the better, if they create space where you might have one or two golden ideas as well.
As part of the INSEAD/UPenn research, the students were divided into one group that worked as a team, coming up with ideas together, and another group that worked in a so-called hybrid way, where students went away and worked on their own ideas before bringing them back to the group.
Again the results were pretty clear: the hybrid group generated three times as many ideas as the team group. The hybrid group was slightly better at evaluating the quality of ideas, although neither group was brilliant at this. The researchers also found no evidence that what we think of as brainstorming – building on each other’s ideas in a group – was an efficient or effective way of reaching good ideas.
This echoes one of the most surprising results from our survey. In the creative world we hear an awful lot about collaboration, but it seems that while working together is essential to bring an idea to life, it’s not that good for shaping ideas in the first place. 78% of creatives said they decide on their own whether an idea is any good or not (47% will do some of their own research, 31% just trust their gut). Only 18% said they ask family, friends or colleagues to help them decide if an idea is worth following up.
This has huge implications for companies or other organizations which need to promote creative thinking. For the second year in a row, when we asked what gets in the way of having ideas, “my job” was the highest answer. Given that between 75 and 90% of our respondents seem to be full-time working creatives, that’s a lot of people who aren’t able to focus on having and developing their ideas.
Our survey and the scientific evidence suggests that brainstorm sessions and other creative meetings may well be a waste of time. Send people off with the time and space to think properly and the quality of their ideas will probably improve.
For the first time this year, we tried to dig into the process of evaluating ideas. What do we ask ourselves when trying to weigh up whether we should commit to an idea or not? This question threw up our favorite single finding of the report.
There wasn't much in it, but “Will it make the world better?” at 27% pipped “Will I make money with it?” at 26%. As the world burns, both literally and metaphorically, it’s hugely hopeful to hear that creative thinkers feel responsible for coming up with ideas to try and save it. Not all creative ideas change the world, but every idea that truly changes the world is creative.
Can ideas really strike anywhere, at any time? And what does it take to make a good one stick? Every year we ask thousands of WeTransfer users about what makes them tick. The result is the Ideas Report, a roundup of insights from all over the globe about the maddening, messy and unpredictable nature of creativity.
WeTransfer was founded in 2009 as the simplest way to send big files around the world. Since then we’ve grown into a whole set of creative tools to keep your ideas moving. There’s Paper to capture your ideas, Paste to communicate your ideas and Collect to, well, you can probably guess that one. We also launched WePresent, to tell creative stories and spark new ideas.
There’s a whole industry dedicated to creative inspiration. From magazines and books to conferences and apps, we’re desperate to get to the bottom of what makes a good idea – but it seems the discussion is always one-way. So we decided to give the floor to the WeTransfer community.
So how do you take something as beautifully abstract and infuriatingly unpredictable as an idea and distill it into numbers that actually mean something?
The short answer – a crippling amount of spreadsheets.
The long one? Settle in.
The foundation was laid back in 2018 with our first ever Ideas Report. We already knew the ropes of running a mass, global survey, so this year it was a case of building on the work we’d already done.
First up, the questions. If 2018’s report looked at how, when and where people get their best ideas, we wanted 2019 to start right where we left off. You’ve had the spark, but what next? How do the sacred embers of a fresh new idea grow into a blazing creation?
Our first three questions established general identity – a person’s age, their creative discipline and their work situation. The next seven, all multiple choice, focused on what people do with their ideas:
Next, it was time for some answers. The survey was built in TechValidate, a bespoke tool for gathering insights. We linked it to a WeTransfer wallpaper – one of those big background images you see on wetransfer.com – and did a call-out for respondents.
Over a five-week period, 19,936 creatives in 172 countries took us up on our offer, producing a mind-boggling 186,000 responses. (That’s a lot of spreadsheet cells.)
Thankfully TechValidate allowed us to create simple graphs showing the percentage breakdowns for each question. This meant we could cross-reference based on things like age, location and creative discipline, i.e. Are Brazillian creatives more or less distracted by dating apps than our South African friends?
Led by WePresent editors-in-chief Holly Fraser and Rob Alderson, we dove headfirst into the data, searching for nuggets of wisdom backed up by facts.
As overarching narratives began to emerge, we asked some of our creative pals to weigh in on the key trends. Debbie Millman, Roxane Gay, John Legend and David Uzochukwu each shared their thoughts on our findings and the ways that they reflected in their own practices.
The final step was bringing all the juicy insights into a (relatively) bite-sized and easy to read document. And, er, if you’ve made it this far, I guess we’re doing alright.
Karen van de Kraats and Beau Bertens led the design and art direction, Faye Ehrich oversaw development, and Johnny Slack and Stevijn van Oost crafted this brilliant site. While Holly and Rob ran the show, the Ideas Report 2019 couldn’t have happened without Ciara O’Shea and Phil van der Krogt, as well as Robyn Collinge, who put it all into words, and Neil Dvorak, who saw to all illustrations.