Sources of inspiration

The way I see it, inspiration comes in two flavors. The first kind is spontaneous inspiration, which usually takes you by surprise.  You might watch a movie, and a character will inspires you.  Sometimes in conversations with other people, you might be inspired to shift your thinking and approach your work from different directions.  We have little control over this kind of inspiration, other than placing ourselves in situations that allow for it, and grabbing the opportunity when we experience it.  The second and more common type of inspiration is the kind that we actively pursue.  Often we seek out inspiration when faced with a task.  Here we have a little bit more control and can make conscious decisions about where to turn, and what to use.

When I ask my fellow designers where they turn to for inspiration, I typically hear responses that point to:

  • Design award sites
  • The work of leaders in design
  • Highly creative agencies or design studios
  • The past (Old advertisements or posters)
  • Other disciplines (furniture, architecture, film)

These are great sources of inspiration and all designers should tap into these to keep their creative juices flowing from time to time.  Usually a designer will take his or her existing aesthetic and lace it with disparate sources of inspiration to create something unique, thus adding to the pool of inspiration for other designers.  Our culture is built on borrowing, and we’ve become accustomed to taking beautiful things, weaving our own aesthetic into them and making them uniquely ours.

There is, of course, a fine line between borrowing and stealing.  Borrowing implies that you will give back.  Sometimes you may see an amazing design, and be so taken by it, that when you create your own work later on, you might use elements of it verbatim.  It may feel very satisfying to see that portion of your work come together so well, and because you created it from scratch (no screenshots or photos), you might feel a strong sense of ownership over it.  If you’re still learning, I say there is nothing wrong with this. Eventually you’ll make your own discoveries that other junior designers might borrow to push their own work.

If you’re a seasoned designer, and you find yourself coming a little too close to your source of inspiration, you’ll probably stop yourself.  From personal experience, I found that the longer you work as a designer, the less you’ll allow yourself to borrow.  At a certain point, even drawing inspiration from other disciplines may begin to feel a little like stealing.  By this time in your career you probably have your own aesthetic or touch that makes everything you create feel uniquely yours, but from time to time you still have a need to expand your vocabulary and continue to grow.  If you’re strict about how much you are willing to borrow from other designers’ work, you are left with a dilemma.  You need a source of raw materials for inspiration.

The problem with drawing inspiration from anything created by another designer or artist is that this source is finite. The world of design cannot continue to grow without contributors of genuinely unique work. It’s a little bit like using a credit card to pay off another credit card bill.  If we keep borrowing from each other, eventually all of our designs may begin to look similar.  This may not happen very soon, but if you take a step back and look at it in abstract terms, you can see how it’s an issue that all designers should be working to fix. We need real, hard earned design capital to repay the debts of borrowing.

I don’t pretend to have a clear solution to this dilemma, but I have a few ideas that may help you get inspired to create better work that could add to the design world without borrowing from it.

1. Move further away from your field.
Look to non-design related disciplines and systems and try to mine them for inspiration you could use in your own work.  Explore physics and see how the same principles can be applied to your designs. Study patterns created by the multitude of data sources.  Look at technology and how it evolves and see how you can apply the same principles to your own work.  I don’t mean the industrial design of products, but the core concepts that push technology forward.   Inspiration does not have to come from a visual source.

2. Minimize.
As we grow as designers, we all develop a bag of tricks.  It’s little things that we do to make our work shine.   Empty the bag out and go back to basics from time to time.  Reduce the amount of colors and techniques you allow yourself to use in your designs and see where you can take things.  Work in black and white. Work with one single shape or a single letter of the alphabet.  You’ll be surprised how liberating it may feel to limit yourself and you might find inspiration in the process.

3. Study Nature.
You can find an inexhaustible amount of beauty, wonder, and detail in Nature that you can use to push your work forward.  Draw everyday objects to study form and light and you’ll begin to see them in whole new way.  Paint and discover the limitless possibilities of color that you never knew existed when looking at a computer screen. Take photos and discover new possibilities of light and composition.  You can even look to your self as a product of nature and allow yourself to make random, untrained decisions in your designs that may take you in unexpected directions.

As you can probably tell from the images below, I am a fan of the third one. Through painting I am able to add to my vocabulary of color, form, gesture and harmony without any kind of borrowing.  Below are some pictures and videos that are not intended to showcase my paintings skills, but to document the process and results of my explorations. Take a look and maybe you’ll be inspired to pick up a pencil or a brush and see where that takes you.

One Reply to Sources of inspiration

  1. Rosy Safran

    December 27, 2011 • 1:49 pm

    very nice post, i actually love this web site, carry on it

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