As designers, there are all of the more conventional places to find inspiration for ideas, like looking at similar products, investigating trends, and looking to other creative fields such as art, architecture, fashion, and music. These are good places to start, but I’m always looking for more unconventional ways to get the creative juices flowing.
I started thinking this way long ago when I worked for a manager who would ask us to bring in one thing each week to our staff meeting that inspired us. It mostly started out with books or art pieces. As time went on, people started to bring in more unconventional things to talk about, such as a leaf they found on a walk. Inspiration is everywhere,if you slow down and approach life with Shoshin (beginner’s mind), a concept from Zen Buddhism. It essentially boils down to leaving your preconceptions, biases, and what you think you know on the table, and open your eyes to what is there and what could be there, no matter how much expertise you have in the subject.
Here are some of the more unconventional places in which I’ve found inspiration:
I’m one of those people with whom you hate to go shopping. It takes forever because I have to touch everything. It takes me forever to eat because texture is just as important as taste to me. Same goes for when I’m out wandering in nature. I love rocks and have a pretty cool collection. I’m inspired by the fissures and nooks and shapes and roughness and smoothness. Each rock is different. I even have a basket of smaller rocks and sometimes I’ll just grab one or two and work them between my fingers. I may be a kinesthetic learner, so that could be part of it. But this affinity for texture did help me solve a sticky design problem once. The problem was a search for alternative ways to search for recipes. One night I got hungry, and as I thought about what I wanted — something sweet, something salty, something crunchy. Then I got it. Ah-ha! We could let people browse for recipes based on taste and texture. Which brings me to the second place I find inspiration.
2) Food & Cooking
It also takes me forever to shop for groceries. So many colors and smells and textures. Photos of food are nice to look at, but what really inspires me is what goes on in the kitchen. I’m always trying new food, so I think I have a fairly large food vocabulary. I rarely cook from a recipe. I know what each of the foods taste like individually, so as I walk through the store, I get inspired to do a lot of “what if I combine…” Sometimes it’s good and sometimes not so good, but every time I cook, it creates a new design pattern of sorts. I have this recipe, and I know I can riff on it a hundred different ways. I guess that’s really what cookbooks are. The design patterns of the food world.
I don’t mean talking to experts in the field. I mean people who have no idea what you do. Some of the best writing I’ve done has been sparked by something I overheard or something someone said. My Mom inspired me to write a post solely by telling me she tried to text my niece in all Emoji. Seems innocuous enough, but it made me start to wonder if other people were doing this too.
People-watching is also great inspiration. When I lived in L.A., Halloween was truly my favorite holiday of the year. The best Halloween party of them all is the West Hollywood Halloween Carnival. You would be amazed at the creativity, ingenuity, and effort that go into creating costumes. My favorite thing is to dress up as iconic women in film. So one year I went as Tippi Hedren from The Birds. To date, that was one of my best costumes yet. You would also be surprised how much you can be inspired by, angered by, and amused by the people around you just sitting in a coffeeshop. Not all inspiration is positive. Negative inspiration can provide some interesting insights as well.
It gets a bad rap, but daydreaming is a positive thing and is good for the brain. I used to joke to people that my job was to stare out the window and then make things. I engage in a healthy dose of daydreaming every day, or even zoning out completely. It’s amazing what your mind can do if you let go of the reins and let it wander. Things mix and match and flow in and out. It’s sort of a form of synthesis that your mind does without the rational brain getting in the way. There are a lot of ways to zone out. I stare out windows a lot. There is something about people and cars moving up and down sidewalks and roads that distracts the part of my mind that says, “Come on. Ideas, now.” If I let go of that a little, it’s amazing what my mind unleashes. Another great way to daydream is adult coloring books. I’m a little behind, as I’ve just started doing this, but coloring allows you to let go, gives license to your mind to wander, and get into the flow.
These are some of the ways I answer the dreaded, “How do you get your ideas?” question. My answer is that there is inspiration all around you, just open your eyes and look. My question is, what inspires you?