Where Do Ideas Come From?

Considering Primary Sources for Creativity & Innovation

René Magritte painting “La Clairvoyance”, 1936

When creating or innovating, there’s always a reference, typically drawn from research and experience. From abstract to realistic, form to function, or usability to accessibility, it’s important to consider our points of reference for the work we’re doing. This drives reason, purpose, taste, and innovation.

When we get our hands into the work, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the details and technicalities. After all, this is the work that gets the job done. But, starting with the customer or audience experience and working backward to the details and technology that makes it possible is the right way to move forward. This perspective causes more problems and failures, but true innovation happens from solving these problems and learning about said failures to produce discovery. In a sense, staying in the unknown is where the unexpected happens and while the ambiguity of being there may feel uncomfortable, it’s also the most exciting place to be.

Council House 2, an administrative building for the City of Melbourne, Australia. Termitary ventilation shaft.

When we’re working through problems, it’s wise to consider nature and science as sources for inspiration. Mick Pierce, an architect working in Zimbabwe designed the largest building in Harare without air conditioning by researching termite mounds in Africa and Australia, resulting in a building that uses 90% less energy than all those around it. This shows us that when we strive to understand the complexities of nature and science, we can draw out principles that lead to innovation.

While research is typically associated with the sciences, it can readily be applied to any creative process. At the dawn of industrialization, solving new problems related to production techniques, efficiency, and performance, so people study these subjects to answer problems in society and business. Today, people are researching human behavior and the brain to analyzing problems differently and questioning existing solutions.

Visualization of the bundled tube structure employed at Willis Tower. Source: Cmglee/Wikimedia Commons

Ultimately, the inspiration for innovation can come from anywhere at any time—not just from nature. Fazlur Khan was inspired by a pack of cigarettes held by rubber bands when he designed the 108-story Willis Tower in Chicago. This is to say… being open to unexpected sources of inspiration could prove most important.

The question as to whether we can solve a problem is not always about capacity and ability, but whether we‘re ready to explore unexpected solutions.

René Magritte. La Clairvoyance (Clairvoyance), 1936; oil on canvas, 21 1/4 x 25 9/16 in.

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About the Author

Joshua Hoering is a writer, designer, educator, artist, and speaker based in Chicago, Illinois. He’s currently working on an MFA in Graphic Design & Visual Experience at the Savannah College of Art & Design.

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