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The Myth of Inspiration?

posted by Matt Ward on Apr 20, 2010.

In this article, I would like to tackle the question of inspiration, and suggest that it is not something that we can just go out and find, but something powerfully unpredictable, which should force us to rely more heavily on our own skills as designers.

Over the past few days, I’ve been thinking a lot about the many galleries that are littered across the internet, collecting examples of various well designed (or at least pretty) websites, packaging, print material and virtually everything else that could or would ever be touched by a designer. Often, we talk about these sites as sources of “inspiration” for our own work and designs.

In a similar fashion, there are hundreds of sites publishing hundreds of lists of similar material – usually taken from the same sites we’ve already mentioned – which are also created to be a source on inspiration.

These days, it seems as though inspiration is always just a few clicks away (or taps for iPhone/Pod/Pad users). In fact, I would even go so far as to suggest that this kind of inspiration itself has become a commodity, freely peddled across this vast internet.

Does anyone else see a problem with this?

If this is the extent of our understanding of what inspiration is, it seems to me that it will lead to an (unintentional) mechanization of the creative process. It suggests that inspiration is something that can be found on the internet as easily celebrity gossip, teeth whitening kits and other content of a more questionable nature. It is telling us that inspiration can be consumed, just like everything else.

This is simple not the case.

True Inspiration

Inspiration is not a product to be picked off the shelf. It is much more vital, much more organic and far less predictable. We don’t find inspiration – inspiration strikes at us. It presents itself to us boldly, lights a fire under our imaginations or dreams or visions. It comes on us, often unexpectedly, and when is comes it demands a response.

To put it another way: true inspiration moves us to do something that we never intended to do, or at least to do something in a way that we had never intended to do it. Often, in the midst of life, as I look around at particular situation, I may be inspired to create or write a story. Thoughts and ideas begin to peculate in my mind – usually related to whatever circumstance I am faced with. Characters spring to life for me. A plot begins to unfold in my mind. Soon, I find myself excited by the emerging adventures.

From my perspective, this is true inspiration. Taken quite literally, it breaths life into me.

When was the last time you had this kind of experience while surfing through an online gallery, or reading an “inspiration” blog post, or even flipping through one of the many showcase books that feature some of the best work from some area of design? When it occurs, I would guess that it is a rarity, and that if you made your living moving from one such moment to the next, it wouldn’t be much of a living at all.

Design is a different kind of beast altogether. It is purposeful and intentional, the process of building a solution to meet an expressed need. This differs dramatically from the sudden an unintentional nature of true inspiration, though the two need not be exclusive. Often inspiration can be the need that design works to fulfill.

One of My Own Inspirations

For example, at one of the more recent points in my life, I was inspired toward an experiment in which I would publish parts of an interesting new fantasy story to a custom built website on a continuing basis, keeping the plot open and allowing it to evolve according to reader response. The idea for the story came from a dream and the idea of how to present it just came upon me one day as I was thinking of how best to deliver the story.

Since, prior to idea coming to me, I never had any intention of creating such a website, it certainly qualifies as inspiration for me.

A Story Inspired By a Dream

A Story Inspired By a Dream

Yet, despite my inspiration, the imagined product does not simply spring into existence, full grown like Athena from the head of Zeus. Oh the story and many of the characters are there, but the actual product itself does not exist at all yet, mostly because I have not found the time to devote to building the site in question, or to commit to the continued writing of the story. Even if I did, though, design would still be necessary. I would have to analyze the elements of my inspiration and then set about building the proper framework to bring it to fruition.

In this sense then, design is actually the intentional execution of spontaneous inspiration. It does not seek out “inspiration” from various blogs and galleries in order to establish a working foundation. More often than not, though, the designs that we are working on don’t even have that initial moment of true inspiration. Many are client projects, for which we as designers are charged with creating an appropriate solution, regardless of whether inspiration chooses to appear.

What We’re Really Looking For

So what am I saying? Am I suggesting that you should abandon looking at galleries at the outset of a project? Not at all. I think it can actually be a very valuable practice – just not one that can really be called inspiration.

At the most extensive, I would call it source or reference material, since the purpose of browsing these galleries should only every to research different ideas and concepts. Examine the solutions that other designers have used solve various design problems. Take notes, compare these solutions against the requirements of your own project, using your findings to help devise the best possible design solution.

I am also not suggesting that inspiration can never occur in design. It most certainly can, and some of the best work probably springs from true and legitimate inspiration. What I am suggesting is that we cannot wait for this true inspiration to strike. Nor can we force its hand.

Instead, we should focus on honing our craft, learning the fundamentals of design so that we can learn to produce beautiful, effective and well crafted solutions, without having to rely on a sudden burst of inspiration to drive and/or motivate us.

What are your thoughts? If you seek “inspiration” when starting out on a new design project, are you actually looking for ideas, concepts and solutions? Have you ever had a real moment of genuine inspiration while tackling a client design? I expect that this post may be a bit of a pot stirrer, so I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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Also from Echo Enduring Media:

An Unfolding Tale

About the Author

Matt Ward is a digital artist who lances freely under the moniker of Echo Enduring Media, and specializes in graphics design, illustration and writing. He is also the Creative Director for Highland Marketing, a creative direct marketing company based out of Waterloo, Ontario. You can follow Matt on Twitter

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Apr 21, 2010

CSSReX says:

I would say, its truth :)

Apr 21, 2010

Sarah Davenport says:

Heya – I was fortunate to experience that rare, true and magical gift of inspiration when I walked into Marcel Wanders personal editions exhibition in Milan in 2007. I wrote in fhp magazine afterwards…

…Marcel demonstrated the power of communication possible
within design, whilst impassioning the hunger for such qualities.
His symbols acted as a direct challenge to each designer to
dare to dream what else could be, to take the risk of dreaming
and offered a window of opportunity to show what could exist
for those with the energy to see it through….

The whole experience provoked lots of action and lead me into an exciting, important adventure I’m still enjoying today. Thanks for writing this article and reminding me of what its all about!

Apr 21, 2010

Matt Ward says:

Sounds like a really awesome experience. Glad the article reminded you of that!

Apr 21, 2010

Cook says:

i loved the topic….well written article

Apr 21, 2010

Brendan says:

Inspirational! ;) sorry, nice article good read, applies to lots of discplines I think.

Apr 21, 2010

Matt Ward says:

Ha! Nice pun. I think you’re right, though. This same concept can apply far beyond just design. I think of writing specifically, but it could also apply in music, film, visual arts and so on!

Apr 21, 2010

alfiks says:

I always have thought that “inspirations” sites can’t give inspiration at all. My main inspiration sources are melody, reading and nature.

Really interesting post!

Apr 21, 2010

Matt Ward says:

Nature is a great one. There are so many incredible things to find in the natural world. Keep being inspired by it!

Apr 21, 2010

Mike Smith says:

I actually just submitted an article to another website about how to be inspired and find sources of inspiration for your creativity when it’s running low. I did include CSS Galleries though ;)

My take on the CSS Gallery thing is that the general CSS Galleries may give inspiration (ie: you see a site with a cool design for their buttons, or another site with a unique use of tool tip’s) but for the most part, I think the niche galleries are the best for inspiration, especially if you’re digging into a certain project, you can find a niche gallery that fits your market and gain ideas as well as general ideas as to where most of the sites in that market take their designs.

But yeah, really nice article :) You’ve been pumping out quality stuff here lately Matt, keep it up!

Apr 21, 2010

Matt Ward says:

Thanks Mike! I’m always working to produce the best quality work that I can. I think niche galleries can be super useful for gaining ideas and perspective when working for clients in that area. Still not sure if it can be called true inspiration though ;)

Drop me a line when your article gets published though. I always enjoy reading your stuff!

Apr 21, 2010

Zackery Reichenbach-Carr says:


I am in a daily battle with myself to use more organic shapes and motion in my design, while trying to keep tings simple.

And I have an idea for a site that appears as if the wind has pushed everything into place, sort of like a reeds on a lake front or sand on a beach feel.

Once again, nice article. When I end up getting that site together I will have to let you know to get some feedback.

Apr 21, 2010

Matt Ward says:

Hi Zackery. Thanks for the comment. I totally understand the concept of being in a daily battle with yourself. In many ways, I think that this epitomizes exactly what design is! It’s not easy, and I’m sure that even the best designers (and I’m not including myself there) occasionally struggle with their designs!

Your site idea sounds really interesting. I’d love to see it!

Apr 21, 2010

Aidan says:

I still thinking about this so called true inspiration. To me true inspiration are normal inspiration are just a fine thin line between them. I believed it’s the end results that only matter. Clients doesn’t care if your inspiration are true or not.

Thanks. Nice article Matt!

Apr 22, 2010

Matt Ward says:

I definitely agree that it’s the end result that matters, since that’s what clients are paying for. That’s what I was driving at there at the end of the article when I talked about honing our skills and stuff, so that we can create awesome designs regardless of inspiration.

Apr 21, 2010

sickdesigner says:

It was a nice morning read, Matt, I enjoyed it!
My take on inspiration is, perhaps, a bit more simplistic, but it has allowed me to stray away from mindlessly looking at CSS galleries: to me, inspiration is actually reason, without conscious realization. Whenever I work on a project I try to reason every decision, to argument and explain why something needs to be and how it should be. Often times, this happens without me realizing and the process of rationalizing a design decision comes after the initial thought. That’s inspiration, for me.
Now, I also play music and whenever I’m trying to make a new song I actually try to leave all reason behind and just go with the flow. I can’t allow myself that kind of journey when it comes to design because, as you yourself mentioned, design is about decisions and about solving problems and in this respect design is by no means an art, like music.
It was a very nice read, keep up the good work!

Apr 22, 2010

Matt Ward says:

Interesting thoughts Radu! I had honestly never thought about the possibility of intentional reason as being a form of inspiration within design, but I can totally see how that might work, and could be a really meaningful and useful way to approach it.

Also, the question of the line between design and art is always an interesting one, and every designer seems to have a somewhat different perspective. I believe that there is a line, but that it is somewhat blurry. I think that a lot of people get into design as artists first, and you definitely have to use many of the same skills – concepts of composition, colour theory and such. As you say, though, design is about making decisions and about solving problems, whereas art tends to be a lot more open ended and organic. I’ve thought a lot about that relationship in the past. Maybe it’s time to write an article about that too!

Apr 22, 2010

David Calhoun says:

Very nice article. You bring up a lot of good points. I love finding these “inspiration” posts to see what other people are producing out there, but you are completely right about it not being true inspiration.

Made me think a lot while reading this. Thanks!

Apr 22, 2010

x says:

how about you get inspired by a spellchecker?

Apr 22, 2010

Matt Ward says:

I confess that I am not as strong a speller as I might be, but my spell check delivered no misspellings. Though your comment may lack a certain degree of decorum, it would be much more constructive if you would very politely indicate what you perceive to be an error on my part and, if necessary, I will look into it and see that it is rectified. Thank you.

Apr 23, 2010

Kiesha @ We Blog Better says:

I love the way you point out the over looked fact that inspiration does indeed seek us out – this suggests that perhaps looking for it is waste of valuable time that you could be devoting to actually do something.

I’m guilty of looking for writing inspiration – I scrub my RSS reader for inspiring content, but on the days that I’m looking for it the most fervently, are the days I find nothing. Yet, while I’m waiting in line at the grocery store, I’ll suddenly get the urge to write (of course at a time when I don’t have a pen :)

Apr 24, 2010

Khalid Janjua says:

very nice thoughts and artcile about inspiration and I am 100% agree with u

Apr 25, 2010

Olivier says:

Sounds about right to me :)

The excessive amounts of ‘best of inspiration’ blog posts has certainly gone past overflowing. Have a scan sure, but always keep your eyes, ears, brain engaged to soak the randomness in – inspiration from within, from your own unique life experiences and way of thinking is the good stuff !

Apr 25, 2010

Sunny Singh says:

I never actually visited inspiration sites for, well inspirtation. I just thought they looked cool but I get bored like a minute later.

I have to agree that inspiration should not be intended, and definitely not be picked from a list of sites, rather than sites you stumble upon and even objects in real life.

Apr 25, 2010

Dara says:

You are so correct in that true inspiration is rare to find. But when it does it can be amazing. It is that burning desire to see yur work completed that will drive designers to that next pot off coffee being made and pushing past that 2am mark.

One of my most identifiable sources was the new HP Skin design by Studio Tord Boontje http://pigmentations.files.wordpress.com/2009/09/hp_mini_110_studio_tord_boontje1. This visual inspired my design for my new website (that after the first night of work I have not been able to get back to) http://www.daramoore.com.

Another recent spark of inspiration that came from the idea of making a direct play off of twitter and the blue twitter blue icon produced http://twitter.com/smartwebconcept.

When you get inspired act on it, even if you can get to drawing right away, jot down your ideas, or even text them to yourself if that is all you have available. Just don’t loose it.

May 6, 2010

Eric says:

Very interesting post! I agree that inspiration cannot be handed out, but I think many of the galleries referenced in many posts are merely meant as a place that others have found inspiration and share that fact solely so that others may begin to look for their muse there as well.

Inspiration is something as individula as each of us. No one can tell you where to find inspiration, if so, then it does become mechanical and that is the last thing we want as creative professionals.

May 6, 2010

Ken Reynolds says:

Nice post, and an interesteing discussion.
I’d agree the inspiration is elusive and organic, so seaching through a load of online gallies won’t make it strike.
I’d view all of the things we do to get ‘inspired’ is a way to arm ourselves when the moment comes.

As all good boy-scouts know, you have to ‘be prepared!’

Dec 3, 2010

Matt says:

I find that, if I’m really honest with myself, I am gifted with sparks of inspiration all the time. But that my “self-editor” that was created and strengthened by years of “education” and rules-of-work moves in and stomps the ember cold lest I embarrass myself by not being able to bring my idea to perfection. How do we teach our children not to do that?

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