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


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 If they feel their existing logo is outdated: why?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. This pursuit can be timeless and lead us to numerous dead-ends or unfruitful concepts.

While it may be helpful to pursue inspiration, ultimately the aspects of one solution (the inspirational solutions we find online, for example) are not likely to align perfectly with our unique problem at-hand.

The time we spend diligently pursuing the ideal inspiration is time we could have otherwise spent better understanding what it is we’re trying to do, why we’re trying to do it, and what types of solutions would be worthwhile. The outcome is often sub-par solutions or second-hand ideas.

Let’s consider the logo for McDonalds as a quick example. The logo is universally recognized and undoubtedly effective for the purpose McDonalds serves today: to be recognized. However, how effective the arched “M” logo is for McDonalds does not mean it would make a great logo for a small, family-owned hamburger shop. Quite the opposite: a similar logo treatment and aesthetic could hamper the reputation of the smaller establishment.

Instead, the designer should approach the problem of designing a logo for the small hamburger shop in the context that surrounds it: the location, the intended customer-base, the family and their history, where the logo will be utilized and the constraints of each of those factors. By fully exploring the landscape of the problem (to design a logo, in this example), the situation that led to it being a problem, and how different solutions will affect the intended outcome, you are much more likely to land on an idea naturally, or know what to look for when you step away from the project for rumination or the enticing search for inspiration.

One of my favorite quotes on this notion comes from Charles Kettering, the once genius inventor at GM, who said:

“A problem well-stated is half-solved.”

By immersing ourselves in the task at-hand, and by continuously attempting to “restate” the problem we are tackling, we allow ourselves to explore the most appropriate and effective solutions. Ignoring inspiration and instead exploring the lay of the land leads us to solutions that will be without-a-doubt effective.

Does this mean there is absolutely no place in the creative process for inspiration? Of course not! Inspiration serves a tremendously important role in building our imaginations and increasing the size of our mental problem-solution database.

However, when we are tasked with solving a creative problem that would be better suited to an original and well-fitting solution, inspiration should only come during off-hours or when we’ve completely diluted our understanding of the problem at-hand.

To do otherwise is to miss the warning sign that inspiration stands as: are you really understanding the problem you’re attempting to solve?

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