Have you been working out (your design brain)?

How a daily design exercise made me swole — with ideas.

We all know the feeling. You’re starting a new project and think to yourself: “I need to get some inspiration.” Then it’s ten minutes later and you’re more glazed than a Krispy Kreme, staring at Pinterest while hundreds of images fly by. Sometimes I’ll find something and drop it into a folder for safekeeping. Success! That inspired me! (I guess.) Even when I finish my inspiration gathering sessions with a few new images saved, I still feel like it was mostly wasted time. We have more access to inspiration than ever! So why did my dives for it feel so decidedly un-productive?

Information is not the same as inspiration

Scrolling through Pinterest looking for inspiring images isn’t inherently bad (how else could I find 25 no-cook lunches right next to Make your own Khaleesi costume?), but the critical piece that’s absent from these scroll-fests is having something to show for the time spent. A couple months ago, after a long search for some fresh inspo, it dawned on me: Inspiration without output isn’t inspiration at all. What I had been scrolling through and collecting was information, not inspiration. No wonder I would struggle to design something even after these “inspiration sessions”. I had glut of information sitting in my gut, and no real way to burn it off.

You can’t practice on game day

Another problem with my information gathering habits was that the only time that I was actively gathering and processing design was when I already needed to use it to create something new. Like Michael Scott downing alfredo right before Michael Scott’s Dunder Mifflin Scranton Meredith Palmer Memorial Celebrity Rabies Awareness Pro-Am Fun Run Race for the Cure, trying to metabolize inspiration at the exact moment I needed it left me feeling weighed down by too much input and not at my best to start moving on something.

Fig. 1 — Me, scrolling through Pinterest right when I need to start producing work for a new project
Fig. 2 — Me, a few minutes into that process

The only time that I was giving myself to really explore and play with design was in the context of a project and under time constraints. A lot of people do great work under pressure. But it felt unhealthy for me to immediately feel pressure as I started a project. I needed to carve out time to make design a daily practice, to get my gears turning, and to not only associate creating design with accumulating stress.

My ever-expanding sketch file

My daily design warm-up

Identifying all these problems helped me zero in on an exercise that I’ve started doing (almost) daily. It started with a blank sketch file, and a design that I swiped from Pinterest or Designspiration or somewhere else on the net. I ctrl+v’d it into my file, and got to the business of reproducing it — that simple. Copying a design is where it started, but that’s not how it looks every day. Sometimes, my design gets pretty far away from the original source. Now that my file has a few months worth of inspiration, I’ll go back and fiddle with a design I was working on yesterday, or I’ll copy a design I previously worked on and take it in a different direction. Other times after taking stock I’ll head to the web to start my search for something new to be inspired by.

The process is simple, and there aren’t any hard-and-fast rules, save one: I’ve inked this activity into my calendar every day — at least 30 minutes, usually at the start of the day. I’m not perfect, and I might miss a day here or there, but the rule is to prioritize this design work out everyday. It’s not a ground-breaking idea, but it’s something that I’ve already seen pay off in a number of ways. For one, I’m processing design daily — deconstructing and reconstructing it, which helps me understand why and how something is working, and helps me identify the boundaries of my comfort zone, then push them. Secondly, because I carve out specific time for this, it occupies a space that’s outside of any project or deadline that might be looming. It’s fine if something doesn’t work or isn’t “useable”. It’s also fine if it’s basically a complete copy of someone else’s work. It’s a safe space where there’s freedom to practice, to make mistakes, and also to surprise myself. Another payoff has come when it’s been time to start thinking about inspiration for a specific project — cracking open my file has been an awesome resource. A document full of ideas that I’ve processed and that that I understand the mechanics of serves as a perfect starting point for something new.

Just like exercise, it’s a discipline and it’s a process. It can be hard, and some days I don’t want to do it. But thinking about my design practice in this way has helped me feel more confident on game day and armed me with a whole new repertoire of ideas and techniques.