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  • emilymccdesign

The value of a "bad idea"

Very often in meetings (design meetings, committee meetings, any kind of collaborative process), I will say something like, "Okay, here's a bad idea..."

Why would I do that? Isn't the whole point of being a professional that you present your best ideas, so people think you know what you're doing?

Here's a few reasons why I love proposing Bad Ideas:

  • It is easier to edit than to create: Every creative person knows that the most intimidating thing is the blank page. But as soon as something, ANYTHING, is on that page, you have something to work with - even if working with it means erasing it entirely. Same thing with ideas - it's why brainstorming sessions often start with the caveat of "just throw out anything - there are no bad ideas!" So throwing out The Bad Idea is a way to jumpstart the group's process - let's edit this concept, transform it, change it completely into something new. It gives us a place to start from.

  • Sometimes we need encouragement to think outside the box: If everyone in a design process is only presenting the ideas that they know will work, there is a danger that the final production will lack surprise. The Bad Idea can be a jumpstart to thinking, what if we did something completely nuts? What if we didn't have to worry about budgets or labor or the laws of physics? Then, if the Bad Idea actually has the kernel of something exciting in it, we can figure out how to make it fit budgets and labor and the laws of physics, and we may still have come up with something new and different.

  • Identifying why the Bad Idea won't work can be clarifying: I'm a big fan of the show Game Changer on - the conceit is that the players don't know how the game works when the show starts and they have to figure it out. Often this is a process of getting the clues or questions wrong - a wrong answer often gives more information about the rules of the game than a right answer. Sometimes the Bad Idea doesn't fit the production conceptually - and being able to explore and explain as a team why this doesn't work helps to more clearly identify what that central concept is.

And sometimes the Bad Idea just exists to make people laugh - that's valuable in a creative process too!

Proposing Bad Ideas isn't necessarily a sign of immaturity or amateur status - for me, it wasn't until I gained some confidence as a professional designer that I felt I could propose Bad Ideas in design meetings. Now, it's one of my favorite things to do.

Production photo from CCPA's "Head Over Heels", Fall 2021. Directed by Derek Van Barham; costume design by me, lighting design by Max Maxin, set design by Christopher Rhoton. Performer: Nathe Rowbotham.

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Jesse Gaffney
Jesse Gaffney

I have had so much success with this. I've also had success with the slightly more positive wording of the same idea, "So in the movie version of this we would..." or "When this transfers to Broadway the effect will be..." It's language that helps us communicate what we are hoping to achieve, and then start the conversation about what that same idea looks like in the scale of theatre/budget that we are working within.

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