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Purposeful Inspiration

Creativity takes work. When I sit down to begin a visual design, it doesn’t always immediately flow. It’s a rare occurrence when I am able to create the best-fitting design solution on the first try. It takes time to remove the clutter and get to the golden nugget underneath.

Every design is a new opportunity to apply a creative solution. Each opportunity poses a unique purpose, context, point in time, or audience. All of these constraints help determine the outcome of the design. No pre-existing design solution (think website templates) is enough to satisfy all the constraints.

A good design requires observation and inspiration as much as context and requirements. Inspiration comes from various places. If a falling apple inspired Newton’s law of gravitation, you may be equally surprised by paying attention to your surroundings.

“Good artists borrow. Great artists steal.”

This quote is often attributed to Picasso. When I heard that quote for the first time, it expressed the feeling I had that inspiration is not just about copying someone else’s work. Every artist has been inspired by something, and has built on what has been done by his predecessors. While I’m no Picasso, visual design for any medium requires a balance of looking at what exists and what I bring through my skills, experience, and expertise.

There are a few things I do to get inspired.

  1. See
  2. Collect
  3. Draw

The Art of “Seeing”

My 6-year old son tells me about things he sees all the time. A mustached face in a pancake, a dinosaur-shaped crack in the sidewalk, a tree-lined river in the stippled texture above his bed — all examples of his astounding imagination! I love seeing the world through his eyes, but I have to admit, sometimes it’s hard for even me to see.

If a landscape catches my eye, I take a photograph—even if I don’t understand why at the time. I can take a photo of the same scene 1,000 times and get a different result every time. Things take on different characteristics every minute throughout the day. I might pass by a building I’ve driven by for years, and a flicker of light turns my head. Something’s different. Often, going back later to the same location, I realize why a special moment in that location caught my eye previously because the appearance of it has drastically changed from the last time I saw it.

Each new thing I see is another building block in the creative process.

Collect Things that Inspire

When I’m inspired by something I see or use, I stop and take note. I snap a photograph, write something down, take a screenshot, or tell someone. I keep a running file of hundreds of screenshots on my computer that contains hundreds of things I’ve seen online that have inspired me. When beginning a design, I flip through them. Each time I go through the collection, I see something different because the context of the current design is unique.

At the moment when my mind is full of a surplus of creative building blocks, I start making new connections.

“The trick is to find that very first point when some part of your thinking can be converted from uncaptured brain droppings into notes, doodles, outlines, or any kind of markings on a page — even though it’s clearly not ready to be shaped into a deliverable just yet.” – Merlin Mann

Then, the ideas start flowing.

Draw—Get it down on paper!

When the ideas come, I get them on paper as fast as I can. I don’t hold back. I just draw.

Usually, I fill a few pages in my sketchpad with all kinds of ideas. I try to draw as many thumbnails as I can for as long as I can. I zoom in and out as I draw. Some sketches are details and some are big picture. Both levels of fidelity provide insights later, when I consolidate.

When I’m done getting rough ideas down, I share them with other people to get perspective. Or, I may put down the pencil and come back to it later. There’s power in perspective. Where I may have focused on one direction or possibility of the design, new ideas may come later.

Inspired, I enjoy the product of the process. Inspiration has a purpose.

Where do you get creative inspiration?