Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work
Chuck Close describes the designer’s creative process in two perfect sentences.
I’ve never understood the design industry’s fixation on creative inspiration. If the number of articles written about it is any measure, it seems to be the one thing on everyone’s mind. How often do you see this?
- “Top 10 inspiring design trends for 2020”
- “My secret weapon for design inspiration”
- “How to overcome your creative block”
- Show me pretty pictures please because I have no idea what I’m doing and I need something trendy to copy.
Don’t even get me started on what’s become of places like Dribbble and Behance. Superficial design inspiration has become big business, and in the process has replaced critique with vanity metrics, exploration with imitation.
Good design doesn’t come from divine inspiration. Design is a process, and the best designers are expert facilitators of that process. A process, by definition, is a series of repeatable steps that are designed to achieve an outcome. Effective design and creativity are not magic, they are the result of following a good process.
So why is there such a high demand for external inspiration? Why do people still believe the false notion of the tortured artist who’s constantly seeking her muse before she creates great things?
Inspiration is easy. Process is complex.
Browsing visual eye-candy is certainly a lot easier than refining your design process so you can delivery repeated mastery of your craft. It’s nicer to believe that creative professionals have some god-given gift of artistic ability or problem-solving power. That all we need is a daily dose of inspiration juice to keep our creative talent flowing.
When in truth, we got good at design just as everyone else gets good at anything — a lot of hard work and practice. And we continue to produce good design work because we’ve developed excellent processes that lead to repeatable, successful outcomes.
The act of design is literally the creation of creativity. A good design process facilitates creative problem-solving rather than waiting for it to come from an external power.
“Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself.”
— Chuck Close
This brilliant quote is from Chuck Close, an American painter and photographer famous for his massive-scale photorealistic portraits.
As designers, we know that art — or personal expression — has a place in our work, but most of what we do is solving other people’s problems, inside their constraints, and on their timelines. A fine artist may sometimes be able to wait for inspiration to strike, but a professional designer certainly cannot. Client’s don’t respond well to deadlines missed due to “lack of inspiration”.
Creativity without process leads to insanity
Waiting for inspiration to strike has historically lead to conflict and misery.
Frank Lloyd Wright, the revolutionary modern architect, was praised for ideas well ahead of this time. Yet his personal life was full of turbulence, and his career was a rollercoaster of success and failure. Some assert that his abrasive personality was the result of frustration from the lack of a repeatable process to produce his genius ideas. He was conflicted because he understood that what makes a true professional is his ability to work even without inspiration.
“A professional is one who does his best work when he feels the least like working.”
— Frank Lloyd Wright
Artist Vincent van Gogh and composer Ludwig van Beethoven both suffered from depression and bipolar disorder. Anxiety and schizophrenia are also common among “tortured artists” of the past.
“I put my heart and my soul into my work, and lost my mind in the process.”
— Vincent van Gogh
Why are these mental disorders so common among creative people? Is it that trying to be creative without a repeatable process leads to mental illness, or that those already predisposed to mental illness gravitate towards creative occupations?
It’s only in recent times that scientists have started to better understand the brain and the mental processes that lead to creative thought. They say “there is very little evidence suggesting that mental illness is conducive to productivity and innovation,” however studies have shown that there’s a proven casual connection between the kind of brain activity that is conducive to creativity and the kind that is prone to psychosis. Read the details in Scientific American.
The link is the ability to cross-process different types of information and stimuli. And I believe the difference between being a happy or tortured creative lies in building a process to unlock creativity whenever you need it, rather than looking for it from external sources or waiting for divine inspiration to strike.
How to produce creativity without inspiration
If cross-discipline thinking is the brain’s key to elevated creativity, then we can help facilitate creative problem solving by extending that to the macro level of our design process and people. Inspiration not required.
- Take off your blinders and don’t be afraid to explore “outside your lane”. Grow a broad base of general knowledge and experience that complements your areas of deeper expertise. Being a T-shaped specialized generalist helps you make creative connections outside the box and across disciplines that a narrow-minded specialist won’t see.
- Stay open-minded and invite collaboration. Gone are the days of the lone genius designer. Let go of the notion that you have to “own” design ideas. Instead, use your stakeholders and team members as an extension of your mind. Successful designers are simply facilitators whose processes generate the best ideas from everyone involved and then fuse them together.
- Document your creative process so you can remember what works well and what doesn’t. After every project, reflect on your experience and tweak that process to make it better next time. Only when you know your process intimately can you know when to break it — because every project is different and may need an adapted process to suit its unique requirements.
- Let form follow function. Decide what you’re building before you think about how it looks. When you do look for inspiration, seek it with intent and specific purpose. If your design process has determined that you need a mobile photo gallery, then look specifically for visual inspiration of galleries that have similar functionality to your requirements. At least then you’re comparing apples to apples.
- Grow creativity through meditation or other practices that calm the mind and help reprogram your brain to better tap into the creative power of nature. I learned Transcendental Meditation when I was 10 years old, and I credit a lot of my design career consistency and success to the impact it’s had in my life.
- Look for inspiration outside of your industry bubble. Way outside. As Frank Lloyd Wright said, “I believe in God, only I spell it Nature.”
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Hi, I'm Benek Lisefski. Since 2001 I've run my own independent design business. Join me as I unfold 18 years of freelance business knowledge: honest advice and practical tips to help you take your indie career from good to great.
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