50 Bad Ideas

Jer Thorp
2 min readJan 30, 2024

I’m not teaching this semester, but as the calendar turns over into February I’m reminded of a seasonal event that I’ve come to expect every spring:

The arrival of The Stuck Student.

I’ve been teaching at New York University’s ITP for coming on 14 years. It’s a media arts masters program, where the students complete a two year degree. I don’t have for a full description of ITP so I’ll use my favourite short one: it’s like a puck rock MIT Media Lab.

Second year students need to produce a thesis project, which has to be complete by the end of the Spring semester. Some ITPers have already cultivated a thesis but many of them haven’t found the right idea yet. So the Stuck Student books office hours for me, hoping I can help. They’re adrift. Confused. Usually at least a little frustrated.

I almost always give them the same advice:

1. Find a quiet place, and bring a notebook and a pencil.
2. Set a timer for 60 minutes.
3. Come up with fifty bad ideas.

The word bad is important here. There should be absurd ideas. Impossible ideas. Dumb ideas. Ideas you’d be usually be embarrassed to put your name on. If an idea seems even vaguely good, find a way to make it worse.

I do this for two reasons.

The first is the conviction that if you shake loose 50 bad ideas, a couple of good ones are bound to tumble out with them.

The second, more important reason is to offer a respite from having to be clever. ITP is a tough program to get into and it has produced some truly world-class artists and makers and designers. Being a student there is to have all of this history at your back, to constantly feel the weight of expectation.

For this hour of Bad Ideas, the students can release themselves of this pressure to be smart or original or even competent.

At a conference an eon ago, Ze Frank said that he’d start off his classes but giving students a ‘license to suck’. It was an actual printed card that students could keep as a reminder that part of learning is not being good at stuff. I think about the 50 Bad Ideas assignment in the same spirit.

The next time you find yourself creatively stuck, maybe what you need is a quiet space, a pencil, and some space to suck. Giving yourself permission to be really bad can be a surprisingly good thing.

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Jer Thorp

Jer Thorp is an artist, writer & teacher. He is Innovator-in-Residence at the Library of Congress. His book Living in Data is out now from MCDxFSG.