The Parameters of Play

Recently I worked with an interesting woman called Helen Bird from Street Food Australia. Helen is an entrepreneur who is working on a project to bring street food vending to Australia. The little drawing here is an idea Helen sketched at a meeting in a cafe to discuss the photo-shoot. Concept development is a stage of the creative process that I really enjoy. It's a time to brainstorm and wax lyrical about ideas. Bring hither the coffees, rip out the pens and paper, and I am the proverbial pig in poo...

Understanding Purpose

The first thing I like to clarify with clients is the goals of their communications. In this case the project is a start-up currently aiming to attract funding and support. Helen had already lined up spots in various publications and had written a submission to a competition for which there is a significant cash prize. She needed images to work with text in describing the nature and personality of her project.

A Visual Idea
Helen presented this sketch as an idea for a photograph. It is a plan view of her body surrounded by various workshop offcuts involved in manufacturing the rickshaw vending vehicles. The rectangular sections represent ply offcuts, and other parts such as aluminium tubing offcuts and bicycle gears. Helen is an ex-rigger and a qualified architect and so is a dab hand when it comes to both design and fabrication. The idea for the shot was to convey the design and fabrication aspect of the project in the start-up phase. The idea made sense and I could imagine it working visually.

Personality – It’s the Vibe, It’s Mabo

In the concept development stage I like to ask people questions like ‘what are you trying to communicate?’ and ‘what do you want people to think about you when they see your photograph?’ I talk to people about how images are a language in the same way that text is, and you have to be clear about what you are trying to ‘say’. Most people know in their minds the ‘vibe’ of their idea, but many struggle to express them clearly. I encourage people to use words, metaphors, analogies and cultural references as ways of conveying what they’re thinking. The words at the bottom of the sketch are notes from that process. The words read: experimental, creative, non-conforming, playful, innovative, take risks, quirky and conceptual. So there we had it – both the visual idea and a sense of the ‘personality’ we wanted to convey.

A Brief Brief

So that sums up our concept development for that shot. It’s all we needed. An important thing to me regarding creative process is not to over-work it, at this stage. The goal of concept development is to: understand the purpose of the product, the personality and ideas that need to be conveyed, and to develop a few visual ideas to start with. What we generated over a coffee constitutes a brief that I can work with. Let’s face it, it wouldn’t be a brief if wasn’t….well…brief.  

Let the Play Begin

A few days later we are in situ. Helen brings out boxes of offcuts and parts for us to set up the shot on the wooden floor. We set it up roughly and I take a few shots. The first thing I notice is how the pale ply offcuts are competing with her pale face in the scheme of the shot against the dark floor boards. To combat this we bring in other elements, but soon decide to scrap the ply altogether in favour of other elements. I particularly like the round objects for the way they seem to represents bubbling thoughts around her head. We agree that this shot satisfies the intentions of the brief.

Then I noticed how the cogs looked light cartoon thought bubbles, so we played with that idea. This shot hits on some of the other personality ideas we had discussed. It also beautifully communicates the mindset of the entrepreneur as both practical and visionary. With further play we generated other useful ideas and produced more shots for Helen’s stock of media images.

The Outcome Finds Itself

Not a bad outcome from one little idea. The images don’t resemble the original visual conception at all, but it doesn’t matter. This example illustrates to me once again that the important thing is to be guided by the concepts, and not to be fixed on a predetermined goal. Sound concept development defines the parameters of play, but over-planning stifles play. It’s about finding a balance between planning and flexibility. A creative exercise is a journey driven by ideas - the outcome finds itself.