If you're like most designers, every time you begin a new design project you look for new inspiration.
You browse design blogs and galleries, flip through magazines and books, and review your old projects looking for a new thread to follow.
But when you find that inspiration, how often does that early idea remain part of the final design?
Often times, the ideas that inspire us only kickstart the process, and we end up changing them. That’s the natural flow of the design process: you need to constantly improve and refine your ideas.
This makes me wonder: what was the point of seeking inspiration in the first place? Did it really help at all?
Sometimes I try starting a project without looking around for design inspiration first, and it goes fine. Other times I can’t seem to have a single idea without browsing design galleries first.
But this demonstrates that inspiration really isn’t critical. I can survive without it much of the time, and even when I do seek inspiration, I wind up changing those original ideas so much anyway that they don’t seem very valuable in the end.
But what should you do when inspiration does seem necessary?
The science of creativity says that our minds require new inputs: new stimulus, data, and environments. We designers colloquially call this “inspiration”, but really what we are doing is feeding our minds with new data so we can create new ideas.
The science proves that new data is essential to creativity, but what designers do is a little different. We chase that feeling of inspiration, not data.
We believe that to be creative we need to feel inspired. And sometimes we do bizarre things to try and set up the perfect, magical combination of factors that help use feel inspired. Or at the minimum, we listen to music, create an interesting working space, learn about what our peers are creating, and so on.
But the feeling of inspiration has nothing to do with creativity. It’s made up. You don’t need it.
And relying upon inspiration makes your design process unreliable.
So instead of chasing that elusive inspired feeling, just look for new data for your mind to process, and build a solid foundation of experience so that you don’t need inspiration to be creative.
Make creativity your default, not your dream.
The inspiration you find on design sites, etc only lasts for a single project. It’s fleeting. And to make creativity your default, you need to stock up on data that will serve you longer.
The new perspectives I gained from other designers during my career still serve me every day. Like when I learned from Paul to use shape layers in Photoshop to create more rapid iterations of design elements. Or when PJ taught me to make better color schemes by adjusting colors relationally. Or how Scott showed me how to use data to inform my designs instead of just making up imaginary content.
The new perspectives I gained from observing other designers working have proven immensely more valuable than any inspiration.
So as the New Year begins, I want to encourage you to seek out what you really need to grow as a designer this year. Not inspiration, cool posters for your office, or a handmade wooden iPhone case.
Seek out new perspectives this year, not the cheap thrills of the design industry’s inspiration mongers.
Learn from people more experienced than you: learn from another designer, ask for critiques of your work, find a mentor, or start paying better attention to your creative director.
You will find yourself growing and improving exactly like you hope to. Only this time, it’s not another resolution you abandon will in February, because the new perspectives that you gain will be part of your design process forever.
Design's Iron Fist is a collection of essays with advice for both design learners and professional designers. It's been featured as one of the best free design books by the Creative Bloq and the AIGA.
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