Keeping a Creative Journal


I’m going to share one of the most important tools I have used for my work over many years: a journal of creative ideas. Keeping this journal is a habit I am glad to have developed early in my life; for me it has been a useful and rewarding form of professional development.

Working in a creative industry means coming up with ideas and developing them into something that someone will pay for. But inspiration isn’t a tap that you can turn on and off at will, nor can you guarantee that good ideas will always hit you between the hours of 9am and 5pm (or whatever hours you put in at work).

Getting Your Ideas Down on Paper as You Think of Them

When you rely on ideas for your profession, it’s important to have some way of recording them when they do materialise. Some people find that they do their best creative thinking at a specific time of day: in the shower, at the gym, in the car on the way to work. For me, it often happens just as I’m going to bed. I keep a journal and a pen by the bed to quickly scribble down any thoughts that I want to keep and follow up on later. If I don’t write an idea down, it has usually vanished by morning.

A Rewarding Habit

The extraordinary thing is that I’ve now been keeping this creative journal for sixteen years. I haven’t filled book after book in that time—I’m no daily diarist—and in fact I’m still using the same humble (but very thick) notebook I started with in the mid-nineties. The front cover fell off some years ago. In a few places the gap between one entry and the next is as long as six months. Other times, I’ve filled several pages in a day.

Separate From Daily Work Needs

I almost never sketch ideas for illustrations, or develop concepts for design briefs, in this notebook. I have a separate sketchbook for that purpose (and I have filled several of those over the years). But some specific ideas for illustrations have been described in the pages of the journal.

I don’t spend much time re-reading the journal further back than a few pages, as I have moved on from what I was doing (and what I was aspiring to do) sixteen years ago, and I have learned that despite writing my thoughts down, it’s only the ideas that really stay with me (and which I can’t stop thinking about) that get developed further.

Developing Your Ideas by Documenting Them

Writing things down like this is a great exercise. Over time, it’s markedly improved my ability to determine if an idea is worth following or not. Sometimes, the concept develops while I’m writing down my initial thoughts, as if it’s literally spilling out on the page and expanding as I write. Other times, my thoughts become more clear or gain a new perspective as I write. I have returned to entries a few days later and with a fresh mind, only to discover that the initial lustre has worn off. Equally, I have re-read some things and found new ideas and suggestions springing up as I return to them.

The journal is also an incredible record of my creative thoughts over a significant period of my life. This makes it one of the most valuable things that I own.

I can’t recommend this kind of journal-keeping enough. I also keep separate logs for business planning, blog post planning, illustration and the conceptual side of working through a graphic design brief. These are all essential tools for different aspects of the work that I do. However, everything begins with the seed of an idea in my battered old journal. Have you tried keeping one?


  • Tara

    October 19, 2011 at 10:50 am

    Hi Tracey, I know what you mean by keeping creative Journals, I have several of them that I have filled over the years. Sometime their are just scribbled words of an idea or sometimes more detailed. I sometimes find that I end up combining several of them to make something half decent. It’s amazing how if you don’t scribble it down you seem to lose that idea for ever.

  • Tracey Grady

    October 24, 2011 at 6:46 am

    Tara, combining ideas that you have documented is a great outcome, and I’m sure that in your case, the result has been more than half decent. Not only do you stand to lose your ideas if you rely solely on your memory to record them, but you may lose the opportunity to reflect on them later and develop them in ways you may not have thought of originally.

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