How many visual thinkers does it take to change the light bulb?

Light bulb as idea - illustration by Cognitive Media

At Cognitive, we create visual representations of complicated ideas – often as whiteboard animations. Most days you’ll find us hunched over our computers using an array of visual storytelling techniques to turn these ideas into easily understood stories with mass audience appeal. The result is, the light bulb question comes up almost every day. You see, we use visual shorthand to represent things like people having ideas. And since a lot of the work we do – like our RSA Animates - deals with profound concepts and ideas, there are a lot of instances where we need to show people having ideas. A light bulb flashing above someone’s head is just the ticket. Job done, pens down, off to the pub… But hold on, isn’t the light bulb thing a bit of a cliché?

Light bulb cliche - illustration by Cognitive Media

Well, yes, insofar as everyone uses it, but it’s been used so much that surely it’s gone beyond cliché and is now almost a visual word? People see a light bulb above someone’s head in a picture or animation and instantly associate it with that person having an idea.

Light bulb means idea - illustration by Cognitive Media

If your mum asked you to lay the table before Sunday lunch would you roll your eyes and say “Oh, mother, the word ‘table’ is so clichéd…”? Of course not – or at least not if you wanted to be given any lunch.

Table is so cliche - illustration by Cognitive Media

So what’s the problem with using the light bulb in digital storytelling? After all, it works as a visual depiction of an idea on so many levels.

Light bulb as metaphor - illustration by Cognitive Media

There is the instantaneous nature of it – an idea flashes into your head like a light being flicked on. There’s the concept of bringing light where there was darkness – before the idea, you didn’t know what you were doing, now you can see the way forward. The light bulb itself is a perfect example of a good idea – it took us from candles and lamps filled with whale oil to a cleaner, brighter and somewhat more whale-friendly world. The light bulb also keys in to earlier language – people were talking about having ‘bright ideas’ for hundreds of years before Edison perfected Humphry Davy’s original bright idea.

Bright idea - illustration by Cognitive Media

Their work stood on the shoulders of the Age of Enlightenment, where the ideas of reasoning and science brought light to every part of human experience from medicine to astronomy. And finally, humans have a deep-seated concept of a spiritual light which keeps the darkness of evil at bay.

Age of enlightenment - illustration by Cognitive Media

All in all, the light bulb rocks! But it would be nice to do something different for a change. The challenge is making it instantly clear what that ‘something different’ means. After all, there’s not much point in creating an explainer video where you need to give the audience a crib sheet to explain the visual metaphors you’re using. And that set us to wondering “what did people do to depict a good idea before the light bulb was invented?” A whale oil lamp lighting above someone’s head? Maybe a Newtonian apple bouncing off a powdered wig? You’ve got to wind the clock back nearly two thousand years to find a truly iconic light bulb style moment. Yes, it’s that all-round Greek clever clogs Archimedes, who got into his bath one day, realized he was displacing water and shouted ‘Eureka’. The word ‘Eureka’ appearing in a thought bubble or above someone looking ecstatic was the ‘go to’ symbol for having an idea until about 1900.

Eureka moment - illustration by Cognitive Media

Of course, there have been other symbolic depictions of ideas – the lightning flash or thunderbolt; sparks lighting a fire; the person clicking their fingers; or a simple ‘Aha!’ have all been used and are still at our disposal.

Lightning flash idea - illustration by Cognitive Media

While researching this piece we even found footage from the 1920’s of Felix the cat in which his having an idea was represented as tea being poured from a pot. Yes, we thought that was pretty ‘out there’ too – probably why the ‘teapot of ideas’ never fully caught on (although we can always try bringing it back).

Felix the Cat - teapot of ideas

And that brings us to the present, where hordes of illustrators and animation makers are racking their brains to come up with something other than a light bulb. What modern alternatives can we think of? We like the concept of neurons firing, because it brings in new knowledge about how the brain works while still having that flash of creative power. But you could equally use a star going supernova or even a simple exclamation mark.

Neurons firing - illustration by Cognitive Media

What do you use? Whether you’re a designer, illustrator, video scribe, cartoonist or simply love to draw, we want to know your thoughts, so post your thoughts and comments to our Facebook page. And if any of us has a brilliant idea for the perfect replacement for the light bulb, we’ll draw ourselves having the idea and share.