Arts Creativity

‘A rejected cartoon isn’t a dead cartoon’: New Yorker cartoonists explain how they come up with ideas

One way to generate good ideas is to produce a lot of bad ones first. Focus on quantity rather than quality so you have a lot to play with.

New Yorker’s cartoon editor Bob Mankoff says coming up with good ideas starts with asking yourself “what if?

‘Ideas breed ideas’..He’s always amazed by the people who tell him they have a single great cartoon idea. One idea is never enough, and it’s rarely good. “The way you get good ideas is to get a lot of ideas,” says Mankoff“

Part of being a creator is learning to cope with failure. Not everyone is going to like your stuff. Mankoff sent the New Yorker thousands of cartoons before the magazine bought one.

No art gets wasted, though. Some cartoonists like Carolita Johnson recycle rejected cartoons. She’s a tweaker, combining ideas to see what else works and then she resubmits. She tries not to overthink it. The New Yorker bought one of her cartoons because it was more clever than funny.

“A rejected cartoon isn’t a dead cartoon.”

Creativity works like a muscle. If you want to strengthen it, you have to practice your craft every day. As Maya Angelou says, “You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.” Discipline is how cartoonist Matt Diffee skips inspiration and gets to work.

“The idea being blocked is the norm.” To get the juices flowing, he begins his weekly two-hour idea brainstorming sessions with a full pot of coffee and a blank sheet of paper.“As I empty the coffee, I fill up the paper,” he says.

It took Matt thinking over 40 unique concepts before he landed on the one to represent writer’s block.

©MatthewDiffee/The New Yorker Magazine/

There are no hacks to the creative process other than putting in the work and learning from your mistakes. The willingness to accept feedback is a lesson in disguise. As an artist, you have to enjoy your craft and be crazy enough to keep going even when no one believes in you.

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By Wells Baum

Wells Baum is a daily blogger who writes about Life & Arts. He's also the author of and four books.