Design is 1% perspiration and 99% inspiration. Inspiration is 200% perspiration.
A Lesson on (Working at) Being More Creative
Don’t get me wrong, any kind of design is hard, tedious work. But if you don’t have a good idea going into a project, you’re going to find more problems than what you started with. A good idea can easily carry a project from start to finish — this is why design professors put so much emphasis on process and brainstorming. If you put the work into getting a great idea, then the design work is just pixel-pushing. But getting an idea — ah, that’s the hard part.
Being design students and professionals, we are constantly surrounded by crazy-talented individuals every day of our lives, and nearly everyone has felt “idea-envy” at a colleague who just one-upped your lukewarm proposal with an exquisitely thought-out solution. Don’t sell yourself short by just settling at, “Well… they’re just more creative than I am.” You’re wrong. I know, because I've been there, and I’ve spent a lot of time trying to research ways of becoming more creative because it is possible. Yet in my online research of how to become more inspired, I’ve found most tips and tricks that people share fall into two, rather problematic categories.
One, they tell you to go look at some design blog, portfolio page, app, website, blah, blah, blah, etc.
These sources are great for finding solutions to design problems, but they’re not always the best for finding creative solutions to design problems. By returning to Pinterest over and over (and I’m just as guilty as anyone), we risk falling into a long, deep pit of clichéd, uninspired designs. With everyone looking at the same material that is so widely accessible to every designer on the planet, it’s difficult to come up with an idea that is truly ours. Pinterest, Behance, Dribbble, CreativeBloq, Co.Design, Creativity Online, and the like are all awesome, amazing resources, but it’s very easy to become dependent on them — you should try to use these as research, not as inspiration when you’re actively searching for a solution… okay, maybe as a last resort. They are really great resources.
Or two, they give a lot of really flimsy suggestions.
I’m talking about the people that suggest you listen to music or take a long walk. While these “fluffy” methods may work for some people, they only address one of four different types of creativity determined by Arne Dietrich: spontaneous emotional creativity. Spontaneous emotional creativity relies on a specific a-ha! moment to occur for an idea to arrive by engaging in a creative activity. You can coax it by playing your guitar or cooking dinner, but there’s no guarantee that you’ll be struck with an epiphany mid-chord or bite. For an industry that’s awfully dependent on deadlines, you can’t always wait for an a-ha! moment to happen. Plus, they’re completely ignoring the other three kinds of creativity: deliberate cognitive, deliberate emotional, and spontaneous cognitive.
So I decided to share with you some real, working, inspiration-finding techniques that I personally use, and, furthermore, show how my methods are proven to help you actively search for creative solutions because they follow practices determined by the four types of creativity, guaranteeing a boost in inspiration. These techniques are very simple and anyone can do them, but they do take just a little bit of commitment and passion on your part:
1. Start collecting new material: photos, bookmarks, books, and “stuff”
I have two folders on my laptop: one is named “Inspo”, the other is named “Stock Photos”. Any time I take a picture or download something I find interesting, I make sure to stick a copy in at least one of these two folders. The only differences between the two of them are 1) “Stock Photos” are all aesthetically-pleasing and 2) I know for sure that “Stock Photos” are all royalty-free to use in projects. “Inspo” has a tendency to get a little messier — they’re not necessarily project-worthy, more just things I thought were cool. Other than that, both folders have always been equally helpful in sparking an idea, and it takes very little effort to keep adding to them or click through them.
I also bookmark random articles, resources, funny pictures, designers I like, and so on in my browser. They don’t take up much space, and they’re always super-accessible when I need to quickly look up something or just mindlessly search.
Honestly, I don’t have a huge design library (a dozen or so books), but there are so many interesting non-textbook-y resources out there that are perfect for mindless scanning. Explore books of short stories, poems, and illustrations — they don’t have to be about design — and create a library that speaks to you and your interests. Set aside a few that you find especially engaging, and come back to them when you’re feeling stuck. I personally recommend The Art of Looking Sideways by Alan Fletcher. Fletcher is a brilliant designer, and his book is a brilliant masterpiece of pure inspiration.
Yes, I have a “drawer o’stuff” in my desk full of random things. I collect paper samples, pieces of string, buttons, old magazines half torn apart, rubber type, feathers, fabric scraps, plastic leaves, wooden beads… literally anything. I don’t save enough of any one thing for it to be used as craft supplies, but a wide variety of small bits and pieces to show enough color and texture to be inspired by.
Why This Method Is Important
Collecting material activates your deliberate cognitive creativity. By having a variety of self-curated sources, you play to your interests and styles. You actively build a knowledge of different techniques and approaches that you find appealing. These activities are things you can begin doing today and the longer you do them, the more you’ll have built up that you can rely on when you’re feeling stuck. By actively paying attention to things that interest you that you can add to your collections, you also start to practice making connections — which is crucial to creative thinking.
2. Return to your “old stuff”
I don’t care if it’s from middle school. Some of my best inspiration sources are my old sketchbooks. Save any notes, sketches, or projects that you’ve created, digitally or otherwise, and take the time to flip through it when you feel stuck.
Why This Method Is Important
Returning to old material activates your deliberate emotional creativity. By coming back to stuff that was once important (whether it was a rejected idea or an old drawing), you begin to draw on the memories and emotions attached to this material. Looking at an old high school painting? You’re probably remembering the many sleepless nights it took to finish it. By removing yourself from the current problem at hand and letting yourself walk down memory lane, you open your mind up to new ideas and new connections based on old material. Plus, you never know when you’ll discover a gem of an idea buried in those old sketchbooks!
3. Stay up a little later than usual
This one might be weird, but it works (at least for me). A lot of people tell you that getting good sleep is best for working through problems. That is absolutely true. However, when you need a good, hardcore brainstorming session, getting a little sleep-deprived may work wonders for you — just don’t make it a habit, or it’ll severely hurt your health and mental well-being. And don’t try to work on a project on little sleep — that will negatively affect the concentration and energy you need to make good work.
Why This Method Is Important
Spontaneous cognitive creativity relies on the knowledge you already have tucked in your mind. It just lets the conscious brain take a break and lets your unconscious mind take a crack at it. By getting a little sleepy, we actively remove the rational, conscious parts of our minds that ignore “dumb” ideas, forcing yourself to embrace every thought that comes into our minds, no matter how ridiculous — think of it as engaging your “dreaming” mind. If you’re staying up late doing something completely unrelated, then that’s even better — you’re opening up your unbiased, unconscious brain and forcing it to make new connections. Just make sure you have a notepad nearby to jot down ideas when you think of them. And don’t be discouraged if after you get some sleep, the wonderful ideas you had the night before seem ridiculous the next morning — just keep them as inspiration for the next project!
4. Sketch, sketch, sketch, write, write, write
The first thing I do when beginning a new project is to make dozens of thumbnail sketches. Or, I just doodle mindlessly. Anytime a pen hits paper, an instant connection is made from your head to your hands to your eyes. Your unconscious thoughts become tangible through your actions for you to retrospectively reflect on. Every good idea you’ve had is already in your head — it just may take a while to find it. And don’t stray from words! Everyone emphasizes sketches but some of my best designs have come from written descriptions or lists of what I want it to look like. Having a description of the visual you’re trying to create is always easier than making it from scratch.
Why This Is Important
This is where you can engage your spontaneous emotional creativity while still giving some focus to your problem. By engaging in a creative activity that comes easily to you whether it’s sketching, writing or both, you rest your conscious brain and let your unconscious mind start to sing. But by connecting your action to your problem, you can begin to flesh out ideas and weigh whether or not they might work. This is a great exercise after you’ve done some brainstorming already, and you’re just looking for that extra kernel of inspiration to refine the work you’ve already done.
There you go! Four ways to become more creative connected to the four types of creativity… Oh fine, I’ll give you one more. Don’t forget to draw inspiration from your own experiences. This will actually activate all four kinds of creativity because you’re taking from knowledge you’ve already gained (deliberate cognitive), consciously returning to emotions and memories (deliberate emotional), distracting yourself from the project at hand (spontaneous cognitive), and creatively exploring a wide variety of topics that come easily to you (spontaneous emotional). Think about what you like to do. What personally inspires you? What do you do that is different from anyone else? For me, my knowledge and passions lie in food and Walt Disney World. So I think about cooking: what I like about it, my favorite foods, the smells, the textures, the tastes. Or I think about my favorite resort at Disney: why I like it, what memories I have, what sights I enjoyed seeing. Just thinking about something you know very well and enjoy may have a surprising result!
Go forth and be inspired, and let me know in the comments if any of these methods helped you or if you have another “non-fluffy” inspiration technique to share!