Where Inspiration Should Sit at the Table of Design

How useful is searching for pre-constructed solutions to problems that aren’t always exactly the one we’re attempting to solve?

Tanner Christensen
Oct 1, 2014 · 3 min read

Tanner Christensen

We seek inspiration when we don’t fully understand the problem or task at-hand.

That is: inspiration can be helpful, but more often than not we confuse the pursuit of inspiration with doing legitimate work towards creating an effective solution. The truth is that spending time seeking inspiration is typical of dilly-dallying and not real progress towards a solution.

Consider this example: if we encounter a design problem as part of our work — say, designing a new logo for a local, small business — we can identify effective solutions by looking at the landscape around the problem and why it’s a problem to begin with. Inspiration is not a way to do what we need to do: solve our unique problem.

Seeking inspiration is a method of seeking already-made solutions to problems that are not the one you’re working on.

In this example of designing a logo, rather than pursuing inspiration to help guide us through the creative process, we should explore the landscape of the job. This is easily accomplished by asking and answering questions like:

Is the business in need of a new identity solely because they are new, or is it because they feel they have grown past their existing logo? If they feel their existing logo is outdated: why? Additionally: what is the mood they are trying to reflect in their identity and what are the core attributes of the business, can they each be represented in the design? What type of logo do their customers expect? Something striking, perhaps with a thin Gothic font, or something more modern that utilizes the oft-loved Helvetica?

Rather than pursuing the answers to these questions — the landscape and attributes of the problem itself — the amateur designer will instead pursue clever, previously-existing concepts (for reasons that are not likely because the designs accomplished their task effectively). This is usually evidence that the designer connects their role with that of an artist rather than that of the problem solver; the task, in their eyes, is entirely to create something aesthetically pleasing.

By pursuing inspiration as solutions, the goal is not to produce an effective result, but to create something that mimics something else entirely. What certainty is there that the solution created through inspiration is effective for the job?

Therefore…

Looking for inspiration is a sign that we may not fully comprehend the problem.

If we find ourselves looking for inspiration, it’s likely that we are doing so for one of two purposes:

The first, in order to identify the attributes others encountered and solved with similar problems. If this is our purpose, we are essentially looking to uncover the attributes of an existing solution that capture our attention in order to bring that attention to aspects of our own problem that we may not be aware of. This can be helpful!

Unfortunately the more common scenario is one where we are pursuing the second purpose for seeking out inspiration: in hopes that we’ll find something that resonate naturally, in our gut…

Read the complete article on my website.

    Tanner Christensen

    Written by

    Product Designer, author, developer. Never not working.