On Inspiration

Though huddled under a small overhang — my hand-tooled leather shoes submerged in 3 inch-deep rainwater — the treasure the moment yielded wasn’t diminished. Here on the cobblestone streets of Södermalm, Sweden, amongst the juxtaposed old and new architecture, niche selvedge denim shops, and headstones of some of the country’s pride, I was being trained.

And inspired. In how Swedish culture influences their humility. Their visual style. Their egalitarianism. This is the first week at my new Stockholm-founded agency; my goal, to internalize the inspiration behind their creative approach.

Though “thinking outside the box” is a term that induces the gag reflex, the sentiment is genuine: the box is our MacBook Pros. The soft ambient glow a Retina display bathes our faces in, a tangible viewport of constraint.

There is an entire world of design and inspiration beyond the context the digital world affords us.

I’m guilty myself; it’s a quick hit. Visual design block hinders momentum. “Best of” collections populate a barrage of new browser tabs. This daily winner, that nominee. Via minimal effort I’ve ascertained mass audience-approved webfonts, grid patterns, and content integrations. It goes on: responsive navigational system libraries. App UI interaction snippets. Ripe for the picking. My synapses enjoy their coffee break.

The resulting sameness of folio work robs us of not just original thinking, but also truly understanding where inspiration — of the primal nature that drives us toward our best work — vanished to. Its derivation. When passions are compromised or left untapped, it’s a most devastating occurrence.

Coaxing out those inspirations from our peers is requisite of stepping away from the screen in totality. “Take me some place in the city that inspires you”, I’ve asked. While our livelihoods exist within the digital realm, inspiration has no such contextual boundaries. It begs to be harnessed. Perhaps it’s an import vinyl toy shop. A stretch of road. A childhood haunt. Understanding what has influenced the people we collaborate with day in and day out provides insight into their approach that far exceeds what folio or client work could ever yield.

Quieting our minds is no small feat with the digital world ever-clawing for our attention. Viewports, omnipresent. At our desks, in our pockets, on public transport. It takes effort to reserve time out of their reach, and exertion is always at odds with comfort. Comfort is the bane of advancement.

Drawing inspiration from cultural observations, interactions, and experiences — as with my numerous trips to Stockholm — is a grand gesture. It evolves over necessary time.

There are smaller moments in the morning — while plucking the oatmeal from my beard, sifting through emails at my desk — where I simply need to get outside. With the morning’s calm, preceding the day’s (and clients’) awakening. Some days welcome us with inspiration waiting to be seized; to be channeled as fuel as billable minutes loom large. Innately, it’s a known quantity when we have nothing to draw upon within ourselves. Some days inspiration requires the effort to be sought out.

The John Hancock Center, via @pseudoroom Instagram

Heading out the front door as others walk in, I’m exiting a state of stagnation in kind. Making myself available to an influx of new energy. I move, and I observe. Need it be a direct translation to the digital space? Should the way a sign painter across the street painstakingly applies letterforms influence my web typography? The way a tree branch buckles to a bird’s momentum inform a web animation? Such events are gifts; the intent, much broader.

Interactions both grand and intimate are longing to be annexed from their state of readiness. Harnessed, processed as fuel. In my Chicago location, I venture a mile East with subconscious intent toward the Loop. Architecture carves its place from the sky. A commuter walking in quick step thoughtfully pauses to lend directions to a tourist. “The First Time I Met the Blues” pours forth from a street musician’s American Deluxe. Ingenuity, humility, soul.

The digital realm is seductive. As visual problem solvers — simply as users — we’re ever-drawn to its lure. My one year-old boy, mid-developmental milestone; concurrently, my hands swipe and tap on whichever mobile device was in reach. Oblivious, yet pacified. Inspiration can be right in front of us, right within our grasp. Stepping away from the viewport is all it takes.