Alchemy of Inspiration


“Don't loaf and invite inspiration;
light out after it with a club,
and if you don't get it you will
nonetheless get something that
looks remarkably like it.”
- Jack London

In this post I want to share some personal insights about inspiration and what I do to help me come up with new ideas. I’m going to write about inspiration in the context of working as a designer as this is what I am intimately familiar with.

Designers are creative problem solvers that care deeply about the physical, emotional and intellectual ramifications their work has on its intended audience. A key factor in their process, in their methodology is inspiration.

Designers (just like artists, writers etc.) need to be inspired to create, to solve problems, to be successful in their pursuits. Inspiration is a tricky thing. It’s different for everyone and what works amazingly once, may never, ever work again. At the end of the day it’s a very strange and personal thing.

What follows are a few insights in how to get inspired that have worked for me in my journey as a graphic, industrial and digital product designer.

ring sketches

In Context
I like to categorize inspiration in two ways: In Context and Out of Context. In Context inspiration is a more tactical approach when engaged in the creative process. In Context inspiration is congruent to the time of being creative or working.

A simple example is listening to music. It’s almost a fact (most design offices confirm this if you visit one), that listening to music helps the creative juices flow. Incidentally, I’m listening to Autechre’s Incunabula as I write this and I have a feeling it’s helping.

Something about music helps the brain untether itself from the regular hum-drum of everyday reality and enable it to more freely explore new ideas, new forms, new possibilities. I suppose that’s why we find the word ‘muse’ in music.

Scale + Medium
Another example of In Context inspiration is and playing with scale or switching up mediums while working. I use a variety of pens, pencils and markers as well surface areas to sketch on when I’m designing, pursing new 2D/3D form.

Switching from 3” x 3” post-it notes to an 8.5” x 11” sketchpad during a session helps me (keep) coming up with new ideas. It almost feels like I’m starting fresh when I make the switch, my brain resets itself and is prompted to come up with more ideas - crazy right?


visual problem solving

Perhaps this is TMI - but the shower is a great place to be creative. In the glass shower stall I’m presented with an unlimited, expansive sketching surface.

A pointed finger makes for a perfect stylus, and after a few minutes the steam from the shower clears away my previous scribbles and prepares a fresh, blank canvas to continue my exploration.

I remember as a graduate student while at RISD we would do sketching exercises on large rolls of craft paper. Here the idea was the same - a change in scale and position, in technique helps unlock a new perspective for your brain to explore.

Other common examples of In Context inspiration of course are flipping thru art or design books, magazines or surfing your favorite sites. If working in a group, the good ole fashion brainstorm always provides fertile material to riff off of and engender new ideas.

sketching in the shower

Out of Context
Out of Context are things that you do when not actively being creative or working on the problem. We’ve all heard stories of the scientist or inventor going to bed, dreaming up the solution to their problem, then waking up in the morning and having that ‘eureka’ moment.

This is a more passive approach, the general premise is that you’re letting your sub-conscious take over and chew on the problem for you while you are (semi) consciously focused on something else (or you're just simply unconscious).

One thing that always works - and I’m sure some fellow creatives reading this can attest to - is that I come up with an unending stream of new ideas while driving on a long road trip. Again, I don’t know what it is, but during a long drive, especially if it’s through the desert or where there isn’t much to look at, the brain while still piloting the car, is susceptible to divergent, out of the box thinking.

Perhaps the brain itself needs to be distracted from the boring drive and is primed to come up with ideas. In this scenario I usually have a small notebook tucked in the dash or in a compartment and jot down the ideas at a rest stop.

baltik standing desk sketches

baltik logo concepts

Tried and True
Other tried and true examples are going for a walk or run, talking to a friend, watching a movie, reading a book, or simply visiting a retail store. I remember working in various design studios in Chicago and a common habit would be to regularly take trips to art galleries or museums.

Visiting art museums is among my favorite in this list. Observing creative works introduces you to new insights, evokes emotions, wakes distant memories and ultimately makes you forget about what you are currently struggling with.

Then after a time, your mind revisits the problem with a renewed energy, somehow fortified by the previously experienced works. Now you’ve gained new perspectives, you’re exploring new juxtapositions, you’re coming up with new ideas.

Thank you, until next time! - Andreu O.

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