What Informs Your Design?

August 3, 2009

Recently, I read Andy Rutledge’s article, On Inspiration. As I read Andy’s article, I immediately thought about Cameron Moll’s idea of inspiration vs. influence.

“Influence is immediate and free for the taking. Because of this, its utility is often short-lived. At times it may even serve as little more than a platform for duplication.

“Inspiration, on the other hand, is an on-going journey in which one continually seeks to heighten his or her awareness of design in its many shapes and forms. It is an understanding of the interplay between design and the cultural, social, and economic facets of society.

“Inspiration is not always immediate, and it has to be earned. Its utility is nurtured and harvested over time—months, even years—through personal experiences. Often it is the catalyst of true creativity.”

I think Cameron has nailed it. Much of what people call inspiration is really influence. I think there are different levels of influence and how we take that and use it to solve our design problems. Andy develops a similar idea in his article.

I think Andy is also on to something. I think he is trying to debunk some false ideas about what inspiration is. He wrote a similar article about creativity.

I agree with many of Andy’s assertions. I think that a lot of people throw around the term “inspiration” and it is creating a wrong idea of how a design professional works. It is almost the idea of having a “muse.” And what most people call inspiration is really influence–looking at design galleries. I never find “inspiration” or influence when I am looking for it.

I think what happens is that we regularly expose ourselves to different ideas and works and that becomes part of a reservoir that we can draw on.

Like other designers, I have an itch to jump right into Photoshop or Fireworks and start designing. But we really need to take the time to research so that we have solid foundation to come up with a design solution. As I think about the strategic planning process, one of the first steps is doing a situational analysis. That is really research or the result of research. You have to know the background and factors that shape the problem and also look at how others are solving similar problems. This leads to better defining the problem and the constraints for coming up with an appropriate solution. Then we can draw upon appropriate material from our design reservoir.

Now I can think of at least one time that I saw something in a design gallery that helped me right away. But I was already working on the problem and moving in a similar direction with my solution. Seeing the other solution gave me some more ideas that helped me shape my final solution.

Andy has an interesting take on what inspiration really is and I need to chew on that a bit more before I know where I agree and where I don’t.

So what is inspiration and where does it come from? Well, the antonym of inspiration is of course expiration. To expire is to end. It is the end of term or end of life. This alone makes it clear that to be inspired is to receive new life; life beyond what we already possess. This new life brings extraordinary ability, allowing us to do things we otherwise simply cannot do. So there is nothing mundane or worldly about inspiration. By definition, it is not something we already possess and might willfully tap into in our moment of need. It is something that comes most often unbidden and fills us with something beyond “us.” And what is beyond us?

It is not my main purpose here to challenge your philosophy, but there is an elephant in the middle of the room of this examination: divinity. If past response is any indication (and much to my great sadness), many of you will surely gnash your teeth and spit in derision of this fact, but the term “divine inspiration” is entirely redundant. There is no inspiration short of the divine. When you consider the fact that inspiration is something beyond ourselves breathed into us, or that we breathe in (inspire) or otherwise become filled with, and so find the ability to do what we otherwise cannot do, certain realities stare us full in the face. Unblinking. This would seem to make clear how shallow are our most common references to inspiration.

After reading this article, I am trying to decide if I feel comfortable using the word inspiration at all. Again, I want to chew on this some more. I think I like the words inform or influence better because I think they do a better job describing what is really happening in the design process. As I read in Beyond Trend, it is important as a design professional to be conscious of what sources are informing our design solutions.

Whether you call it inspiration or not, I like Cameron’s idea in that true inspiration is a collective knowledge that we accumulate over time and apply appropriately to solve our design problems. Then that collection informs or influences our design decisions.

1 Comment

  1. Jeff

    August 3rd, 2009

    I found out from Andy Rutledge that Viget blog also did a write up on his article, http://www.viget.com/inspire/one-percent-inspiration/