How to Get Inspired: the Right Way

• 3 minutes READ

In an Office Hours session I recently held, somebody asked Jason Santa Maria where he got his inspiration from, “I usually go for a walk” he promptly responded. Whilst this is valuable advice, it still exemplifies the inherent nature of inspiration; nobody knows where it comes from.

We designers go through erratic creative mood swings, one moment we’re on the top of the world, and the next, we’re consumed by doubt and cursed with that piercing question, “Am I good enough?” And so, I think it has become important to establish as a truth and that is, inspiration can be obtained methodically. The secret is to simply get it before you need it.

I used to think that inspiration was achieved by casually sitting around waiting for it to land on my lap. That can and does happen, as suggested by Jason Santa Maria. But, I liken the process of securing inspiration to that of seeing ghosts; the ideas are always there, half-formed. And so it’s important to be in the right state of mind; always in anticipation of being able to capture those ghostly visions, and turn them into something that works.

Good and even exceptional designers give themselves the permission to be distracted and follow their whims. But it’s good distraction for it is intentional and expectant of good fruit. All it takes is a little spark to set off a chain reaction of new ideas. Think about it for a second, why do you think Swiss Miss started blogging? She’s creatively feeding herself, and she is doing so constantly. Step 1 is to realise that inspiration is everywhere and so we should foster new eyes to see it. Below are the recent things that Swiss Miss has blogged about.

swiss miss

So what should you pay attention to? Anything that grabs your attention. The things that make you go “hmmm”, “huh” and “interesting”. Anything that evokes an emotional reaction, deserves your acknowledgement and interrogation.

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All great designers carry some form of a notebook with them, ready to capture those peculiar things that unforgivingly steal their attention. One of the best tools for a designer is the screenshot function on the computer. It’s cmd + shift + 4 on the mac. It’s about taking all the incidental everyday things to build a digital scrapbook, which you can draw upon. Step 2 is to record everything that intrigues you. Everything.

Designers should not be measured by their output, but by their solutions. Whilst actually designing may seem like a good idea, spending time outside doing something interesting is also profitable. Hard work isn’t always productive. You need periods of inactivity, call it fooling around if you will. If you keep harvesting, the crops won’t mature.

Sometimes, our problem is not that we are not inspired, but that we are inspired by the same things. In order for designers to push the boundaries we need to absorb new materials. But when a deadline approaches, we frantically seek inspiration in all the same places. Our outlook is narrow. The result; the expected, the predictable and the typical. Many designers today are walking on the same path as other designers. I’m guilty of this.

In January, I interviewed Jason Fried and I asked him, where should I go for inspiration. In short his answer was, “Don’t go where other designers go. If you want to design a mobile app don’t look at other mobile apps. Look at an interface of a car.” What he’s talking about is taking the time to identify alternative triggers capable of expanding your horizon. Don’t restrict yourself to your own medium. It’s just as possible to be inspired by a filmmaker, fashion designer, writer or friend. Cross-pollination makes for an interesting outcome. Remember, this a long-term game. Unique experiences, when ready, will converge and achieve a, “Wow, where did that come from?” response, which is what you should strive for.

Successful designers succeed because they have shown people something they hadn’t imagined. If a client knew what they wanted before it had been designed, they could have designed it themselves.

Great designers are great observers, and they take the time to do just that, observe. It is important for me to re-iterate the point that the aim is to not search for inspiration like it is a rare commodity, but to see inspiration in all things. Everyday we run across an enormous amount of fugitive material, which can be wood for our creative fire. And out of such material it’s possible to be inspired even, when we don’t need it.

Here are 10 Steps to get inspired:

  1. Record everything that intrigues you;
  2. Organise it;
  3. Go to new places;
  4. Embrace new challenges;
  5. Learn something outside your field;
  6. Get out of the office and design on the train;
  7. Play with interesting physical objects;
  8. Share your thinking with somebody outside your field;
  9. Gather inquisitive and reflective people around you;
  10. Question everything and ask stupid questions.

William Channer

William Channer is a British product designer. He founded Dorm Room Tycoon, a podcast show that interviews influential creators. And before that, he was an advertising creative at AQKA and BBH working on British Airways, Google, Axe, Nike and The Guardian. You follow him on Twitter @williamchanner.

Posts by William Channer
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