The Truth About Inspiration

One of the most frustrating things for a working designer or upper level design student is the myth that we wait for inspiration, or we are born with it. If only it was that easy. True, sometimes inspiration just strikes, but it doesn’t happen often.  The rest of us get down to work so we meet our deadlines.  

If you are a beginning design student, then the best thing you can ever do for yourself is to seek out inspiration rather than wait for it.  Trust me, it will be the reason why you can stick with the rigorous demands of your undergraduate design program while your design chums, those who wait for inspiration, change their majors.  Here are some tips to help you seek inspiration and get that work done!

When you are working with deadlines, you have to coax inspiration on your terms.  Instead of waiting, you will have to connect with your project and draw connections between the projects and related or even random items.  If you do this, you will have inspiration. Brainstorming is an effective way to draw connections and coax inspiration in a timely manner.

There are many different ways to brainstorm. The right way is the method that comes the most naturally to you.  I like to use thought bubbles and start jotting down everything and anything that springs to mind, then drawing connections and jotting down new ideas that result.  Give this a try, or make lists, sketch, or journal.  Whatever you do, stay loose and let the ideas come freely. The worst thing you can do to your creativity is turn on your internal editor and stop ideas as they come.  If they really are ridiculous, you can always throw them away later, but not now.

Secondary Research
It sounds scary, but trust me, you already do it and it’s fun.  It’s called Google images. Or Behance, or some other image site you prefer. The only difference now is that you’ll be searching according to the needs of your project or the ideas from your brainstorm. It’s that easy.

However, easy doesn’t mean quality.  To make your secondary research worthwhile, seek material that will help you answer these questions: what has already been done and what can I do differently?  In answering what you can do differently, sometimes it helps to look at work not related to graphic design.  When your brain makes connections between unrelated research and your project, inspiration for something unique can spring forth.  For example, I often look at paintings, fashion, and architecture for my graphic design projects.  The paintings inspire new color pallets, fashion inspires texture and pattern approaches, and architecture inspires grid structure and layout. See how anything and everything can cross pollinate with graphic design? Give it a whirl.

Another tip to help you generate quality secondary research is to print them, collect them in a binder or sketchbook, and take a couple minutes to annotate the images.  It might sound like a lot of work, but it really isn't hard.  Just ask yourself why you liked that picture and try to frame your answer in terms of technique, color theory, or composition.  Also ask how the image relates to your project.  A sentence or two is all it takes to make a world of difference.

Primary Research
This is where the fun starts. Primary research is your time to pick up the pencil or fire up the computer and start playing with the ideas from your brainstorm and secondary research.  Playing is the key, as well as staying loose.  Like the brainstorm, you don’t want to internally edit and suppress ideas, no matter how crazy they might seem.  Complete them first, take a break, and if they still seem crazy, then you can trash them.  But once in a while you will find a gem in something that you thought was crazy, and that will be the day you’ll be so glad you didn’t suppress it. Trust me.

Taking Breaks and Hobbies 
This is so important to keeping your newly found inspiration. It will also help you keep your stamina as those projects or homework assignments pile up.  Every now and then take a break from your projects.  Put them completely out of your mind and do something unrelated, like walks, friend time, or hobbies.  Hobbies are especially great as many of them use the same principles of art and design.  I love miniature architecture because it lets me play with color, texture, line, and pattern and inspires my graphic design.  My design friends knit or play music. If you are doing something with your hands and making something, odds are it will be great for your graphic design.

Interior design is one way to take a break from graphic design and art while still using the same skills in the visual elements like line and pattern.

You should also take a break from your usual sources of inspiration. If you love Google for 2D visual art, take a break from anything 2D visual art and search sculpture instead.  Or better yet, be physical and attend a gallery opening, or a music concert.  I often seek out music performances, attend movie showings, or walk in nature for inspiration in the formal elements, composition, and design that isn’t directly related to graphic design. It keeps the juices flowing without over stimulating yourself.

Now Get to Work
These aren’t the only ideas for gathering inspiration on your own terms, nor are they rules.  They’re guidelines—use them as you need them, break them, or make your own.  Now dive into those projects and never have to wait for inspiration again.


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