The Disadvantages of Having Too Many Ideas

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This is a guest post from Ken Reynolds – a graphic designer and illustrator living & working in Suffolk, UK. He runs his own design blog, unimaginatively named after himself, where he writes articles on design, blogging and freelancing. You can connect with Ken on Twitter

One of the most common problems creative people experience is a lack of ideas. An imaginative dry-spell. The internet is awash with articles advising how this state can be overcome, I’ve even written one myself.

Everyone is so worried about a lack of ideas that the opposite problem can be easily ignored. There are a number of dangers lying in wait if you have too many ideas.

This sounds like a ridiculous statement. As designers, ideas are our business. People employ us to think creatively; so how can it possibly be a bad thing if we hit a rich vein of thought?
I like to compare it to finding a big deposit of gold in a mine. It’s wonderful that you have found an abundance of potential wealth, but there are many dangers you have to overcome before you have a final product with which to reap the benefits.


In the past, while working in a busy studio environment, time was always a controlling factor. I was expected to have a number of ideas ready for presentation within hours of being handed a brief. There is nothing wrong with this, but it is far from ideal.
Mentally, I felt like I was falling through the air, extending my arms hoping that my fingers might latch onto a life-saving hand hold. Because of strict time restraints I was forced into latching onto my first ideas and hoping for the best.

Often an immediate reaction to a brief can work out well, but the designer needs to have sharp instincts to pull it off. The sort of working environment I describe helps to hone this instinct, and you soon learn to tell the difference between a bad idea and one with potential very quickly.

On the flip side of the coin, when you allow yourself plenty of time and have a raft of, seemingly, excellent ideas, you have to be careful when selecting which leads to pursue.

You may spend a lot of time on an idea to discover it is a dead end. Personally I consider this as part of my process, but if you continue this way unchecked you will find that you will be wasting a lot of time working on ideas that should have been discarded at the beginning.


Having a lot of ideas competing against one another can lead to confusion. If you believe that you have a number of excellent ideas, it can be very difficult to discard some and pin your hopes of a single one.
You might end up trying to mix your ideas up in an effort to get all of them into the final product. This could lead to a lack of focus and impact. You might find that instead of strengthening a message you dilute it.

Another problem that might arise, if you are in a particularly prolific frame of mind and you are handling multiple projects at the same time, is that your designs begin to look alike.
You might find that discarded ideas from one project might pop up in another one. There’s nothing wrong with recycling! But you have to be careful that your output doesn’t become uniform.


I’m always very wary when I hit upon a large number of ideas when responding to a brief. I should be happy and excited, but over the the years I approach the situation cynically.

If I have plenty of ideas I assume that a number of them simply cannot be original. Nothing worthwhile should come easily, so I usually dismiss the first few rounds of brainstorming out of hand. Occasionally I’ll go back over the initial notes to see if a gem has sneaked through my cynical brain. Sometimes it happens, but most of the time I won’t settle on an idea until I feel frustrated and drained.

This odd process is part of my quality control. I mistrust my first thoughts and write them off as simplistic, unoriginal and cliched.


Simply put, the more ideas you have the harder it becomes to identify the gold amongst the scree.

Occasionally a designer is blessed with a flash of inspiration so strong that ideas generation is simply not needed. I have had a few projects where a design solution has jumped out of the ether straight into my head. It’s all so fully formed that my cynicism doesn’t have a say.
When this happens it is an amazing experience and a blessing.

For me this is a seldom blessing, but I am always mindful of how I feel when I know an idea is correct.
When generating ideas I try to design by numbers, making sure that I cover all of the bases in the brief, but I have come to trust my instinct.
I make sure I put a lot of thought into each idea to provide my instincts with enough information to pass judgement on it. If you put an idea through the ringer you’ll soon be able to asses if it has legs.
If I’m still thinking about the possibilities of any particular idea for more than 20 minutes I know that it’s worth the effort for further development, and that’s when the excitement kicks in.


I’d never advise any designer to stop generating ideas. The main thrust of this post is about making sure that you don’t get distracted by the amount of ideas you have.

Design is about communication, and the purity of a design can easily be compromised if there are too many ideas competing for attention.

Everyone has a different creative process, and there are many ways we all generate ideas. It’s the lifeblood of our profession, but it’s something you might want to be wary about.

Having too many ideas only becomes a problem if you are not able to process them clearly and without sentiment. Sometimes promising ideas have to be discarded because they do not meet the brief, sometimes you have to waste time on a bad idea to prove that it’s worthless.

It would be nice to hear your opinions on this subject.
Are you blessed with consistent inspiration? Do you struggle to generate ideas? Do you find it hard to recognise a good idea when you have an abundance? How do you process your ideas and decide which ones to pursue?

Ken is a graphic designer and illustrator living & working in Suffolk, UK. He runs his own design blog, unimaginatively named after himself, where he writes articles on design, blogging and freelancing. Connect with him on Twitter
  • José A. Rivas G.

    Very interesting post. In my case, I discard some ideas right away if they seem to be common, but I also try to combine them. Good ideas doesn’t always come in the right direction, but if you can identify them, write them down for later use. When it comes specifically for a design, I usually go through a process of trying to see how close of what I initially imagine can I really accomplish, the closest one will get the first try.

  • Sometimes, with the amount of information and inspiration we have avialable today, the hardest part of any creative work is not having too many ideas. Although, this can be quite good, it´s also quite easy to get overwhelmed and unable to focus on your work. Besides that, a simple search and a couple of minutes, it´s all it takes to realise that most of your ideas are plain obvious, lack originality, or have been done so many times, in so many different ways, that we just can´t find a solution to make them work. Which leads us from having too many ideas to being stuck with nothing to work with.

  • Amy

    I love when designers can work as a true studio, collaborating and critiquing eachother’s work. Bad ideas can be made good, good ideas can be recognized more quickly. I rarely get to do this, and find most other designers really reluctant to work together, but when we discard the ego it leads to really great things. To share credit for something great beats sole credit for lesser work in my book.

  • OMG. I can totally relate! More specifically with focus. Too many ideas, too much to do, too little time. That’s where you also need to prioritize and just push the less urgent/important ideas down the list. I keep the less striking ideas for improvement later on, when I become idle. But this is talking as a software developer and not a designer.

    Great post :)

  • Thanks for your comments!

    Thanks for your insight into how you work.
    THe biggest challenge for me has always been making the things I imagine real. Somethings are so good and clear in my head, but I just can’t realise it on paper or screen. I guess that’s part of the challenge, plus it’s fun!

    I agree that with so many ‘inspirational’ resources available to us now it’s very difficult to be original. But just because something has been done before doesn’t mean it can’t be re-worked. Someone else may have used a similar idea, but you haven’t. Spin it another way, re-use the idea and make it your own, subvert it and make it different.

    I also think it’s great to collaborate with others. It can make ideas generation and refinement a quicker and more enjoyable process.
    I guess it comes down to working with people you trust. I sometimes find other designers are wary about discussing their ideas in fear of them being ‘stolen.’
    When it does happen, teamwork in design is a great experience.

    I think the ideas discussed in this post probably go beyond ‘design’ and is appropriate for any field that involves ideas.
    I think you hit the nail on the head by saying it’s about ‘prioritising’, but you have to have good judgement before you can decide what your priority ideas are!

  • My ‘problem’ is not that I have too many ideas that are specific to something that I’m working on (though those come too); instead, most of my ideas tend to be completely “way out there”, or just scraps of concepts or insights or ways of looking at things, or perhaps even implementable million-dollar ideas that I might never have time to do anything with. (I also come up with ideas of how to handle or organize or process or sell my ideas, too.)

    Worse, this ‘idearrhea’ (as I call it) usually happens while I’m working (or should be working) on something else, and so it can be really, really distracting, especially if I get sucked into exploring whether anyone else has thought of it, or if I start digging deeper into my own head to see what more I can do with it.

    The only answer, I’ve found, is to write the ideas down as fast as possible and toss them into the stack of ideas that have been accumulating over the years. Sometimes, the ideas come back on their own because they continue to ferment in my mind, and they might even accumulate more and more notes. Sometimes, rereading the ideas later brings new insights that make them even more awesome, and other times I just giggle at my naïveté, leaving comments if appropriate.

    Most of the time, though, the idea is allowed to just sit and be unused, and I can relax knowing that the idea is not lost, yet not taking up the valuable time I spend doing other things. I sometimes worry that I should be keeping them in a fireproof/waterproof/lockable compartment or something… but then I remember that there truly are an infinite number of ideas out there, and that even if these ones are lost, they will often come back if they’re good, or come back improved if they weren’t good to begin with.

  • I can kinda related to this topic here. While too many great ideas has been generated in light speed, i just ain’t got enough time to write them down to bring them on work even though sometimes it was a really awesome idea. The hands are not fast enough as the brain works. That’s frustrating.

    As for my case, writing down ideas is not a bad idea at all but while my brain started to generate ideas, i didn’t even know what to write or draw sometimes! Plus, i am a very absent minded person. The type of ‘now you see it, now you don’t’! This happens mostly while i’m having my brainstorming session for my work.

    I wish i can have a brain surgery sometimes. haha..

  • You make many interesting comments about your your process, your approach, your type of design or creative projects. Prior to focus the past 30 years on creative thinking development I was a licensed architect, graphics & signage designer, cartoonist, freelance writer and interior designer over a 20 year period and occasionally since. Prior to studying creative thinking processes, tools and techniques I had developed a few different approaches to design depending upon the design type I was working on and the longevity of the final product. During some of the past 50 years I was called upon to do some of each type of design projects at the same time. My late wife often was asked at gatherings of new people, “What does Alan do?” Her usual response in the beginning was “It depends upon which day of the week it is.”

    In order to move from one form of design to another I had developed my own design approaches/methodologies that best fit the project or end product.

    One approach that I developed before studying hundreds of creative thinking tools and processes was to visually flip through dozens to hundred of magazines or photos of designs to fill my mind with designs using Post-It Notes marketing ones that caught my attention (liked, thought were great or thought were crap but something caught my attention). Then I went back and relooked at the chosen ones examining them for clues, directions, inspiration.

    I found this very helpful when I was no longer working full-time in any one specific form of design.

    When I taught design for a few years I exposed my students to the technique making them aware of the best designs in various design fields around the world through the top design magazines.

    In the early years I remember working with a mix of very talented designers: architects, graphics & signage, advertising, display; who would never look at other people’s work because they thought it would influence their own design concepts.

    Marcel Breuer based on extensive reading of his writings and writings by architects who studied with him at either the Bauhaus or Harvard/MIT and went on to become successfully and many famous design architects was famous for helping the students to search for their “philosophy”, “motif”, “design approach” or as writers call it “their voice”

    You have shared much about how you have found your voice as a designer.

    As with Leonardo da Vinci, van Gogh, Steve Allen (comedian, musician, composer) I challenge your idea of being too quick to label an idea bad. Even my mechanical engineer father encourage me to store my designs, my sketches, my drawings for future inspiration and learning. Though Edison did not consciously do that, his assistant and eventual partner, Charles Bachelor, did by picking up the sketches that Edison discarded and redrafted them and filed them for future use.

    “Those were not 9,999 failures for the invention of a light bulb, they were potential or possible solutions for problems I have not begun working on” (extremely paraphrased and probably an urban myth).

  • thanks for your insights & opinions guys! really like to see ppl sharing stuff :-]

  • Thank you for your opinions guys!

  • @Qrystal
    I love the term ‘idearrhea!’
    I guess we all treat ideas as commodities, and we guard them from others, and save them for a rainy day. Unfortunately an idea is only useful if you can realise it.

    @Duncan Y.
    I guess it’s hard if the ideas crowd one another out in your head before you can record them, but I wouldn’t knock it. Ideas generation is fickle one day you might marvel at the fact your head was so full of ideas when you are navigating a dry patch!
    I think brain surgery might be a step to far! :) You just have to figure out the best way to harness the way you create ideas.

    Thank you for your insight. I’ve read and re-read your comment and there is a lot of very thought provoking points.
    I like the last sentiment that suggests no ideas are wasted, they are just waiting to solve future problems.

  • Brittany

    This article was very helpful! Thank you for writing it!

    I find myself going crazy sometimes because my ideas constantly formulate in my brain without any warning. It happens everywhere and anytime. I just recently started writing down my ideas in notebooks to try and keep them organized, but all of my ideas are pretty random and its frustrating because I still don’t know which ideas to start on, they all seem great to me! I work in sales and I travel a lot for my job so I’m constantly inspired, but I feel like Im behind because I can not make up my mind! I know there is no rush, but I get anxious sometimes and I hate the feeling.

    Sorry for the rant, but it felt appropriate! I will look into creative thinking development techniques on behalf of Alan’s comment. Thanks again!

  • Dave

    Whenever I have too many ideas i just vent them all on this little site called i make quite a bit of cash D:

  • All of the points mentioned in the article are so true. One of the most difficult things for me to do is staying focused with all the ideas constantly running around in my mind. I’ve started to sketch and write down a lot of my ideas recently, and that definitely helps. It puts me at ease and allows me to concentrate on other things, knowing that I will be able to return to those ideas and expand on them.

    If I were to give one piece of advice, it’s most certainly this: PRIORITIZATION. It takes a very special skill for one to master prioritization, and a lot of self control and discipline. Lean how to decide what’s important, and take steps accordingly. For instance, when I have a great idea that I know I won’t be able to work on right away, I at least register the domain (if applicable) to get me started, and create a dedicated section of my sketch/idea book to continue building out the idea.

    I may very well blog about this very soon. :)

  • Dan

    I’m having this problem as a young person figuring out what kind “career” I can make out of my creative personality. I’m constantly coming up with ideas related to drawing, graphic design, creative writing, music production, and entrepreneurial business. My biggest problem is that I’m a serious amateur in many of these fields and want to invest as much time as possible in learning the craft behind these art forms. I find myself buying tons of “how to” books on amazon, reading tons of “how to” articles on the internet. When trying to get through all of the basics, I’m finding that my mastery is developing slower than it should and I haven’t finished any noteworthy projects. I guess I’m just testing the waters, but the ideas seem to be spewing out from nowhere ALL the time. I have a note pad full of the most random, interesting things that I wish to some day develop, but it seems like my energy isn’t focused the way it should be.