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Creativity is tough.
How do you manage to stay on the ball every day, all day? The truth is, you cannot – not really. Instead, you occasionally end up stuck in a rut where every design feels like a variation of the same thing.
The thing is, the longer you keep that going, the harder it can be to get your mojo back. Sometimes it feels like the walls of mundanity are closing in and everything you do seems like a knock off of something somebody else has already done. You can lose your confidence. You can lose your faith.
In those moments, you need to find a way to knock yourself out of the path you are on and venture further afield, into areas unknown. And that, you’ve got to do yourself.
That said, there are plenty of catalysts out there that can help you find your way. It is just a question of what kind of incentive you are looking for. Are you looking for direct or indirect inspiration?
Direct Design inspiration
This type of inspiration comes directly from the field of design. In other words, you’ll find these kinds of inspiration in the literature, the magazines and the work of other designers. That sort of work can be fantastic to get a quick shot of design inspiration, as it is immediately clear how these ideas can be applied.
That said, if you only rely on this form, there is a much greater chance your work will end up being derivative and repetitive, as you’ll end getting your inspiration from the same source as most of the rest of the design world. To avoid that trap make sure that whatever you take away from this field is allowed to evolve. Be sure to play with it and not accept it as is.
One good way to do so is to try and extract what it is that is so exciting to you about a particular style of design. So if you see something that inspires you, you grab a piece of paper and create a mindmap to figure out why it does so.
Is it the form? The lines? The concept? Some combination thereof? Why is this more inspiring than other things you’ve seen? Is it the natural evolution or progression of another idea? Can you take it a step further? How far can you stretch the concept before you are no longer excited?
Indirect Design Inspiration
This form of design inspiration is found further afield, outside of what you (and more importantly the rest of the field) would typically look at. Now here you’ll have to work much harder to incorporate the ideas into your work, as they are not directly related to what you are doing. It will take far more lateral thinking.
On the other hand, if you do find inspiration here it is bound to be far more leftfield than anything you’ll likely find in areas of direct inspiration and there is, therefore, a greater likelihood that it will be original. In other words, you might have to work harder but it could very well be worth it if you are really trying to shake things up.
For those not familiar with the concept of lateral thinking, it is all about creating the potential for your mind to make unusual connections and think outside the box. For that reason, when you are doing it, make sure to realise that no idea is wrong, however silly it may seem. Because sometimes a superb idea might be hidden behind a silly one.
To kill my inner critic, I’ve started using the most dangerous writing app. Here if you stop writing for 5 seconds, everything you’ve written gets deleted, which is an amazing way to push yourself to keep writing and thereby shut down the inner critic! I use it to brainstorm by writing about what it is that I am trying to do.
Sources of Direct Inspiration
Now you probably have a significant number of websites that you comb through for direct design inspiration. That said, there are a few that I feel have to be mentioned. If you are not here to find out about new sites, go ahead and skip down to the ‘Indirect inspiration’ part where I’ll explore some other ways of provoking your creativity.
UI Parade: In websites and apps it is all about the details. That is why you’ve got to check out UI Parade, where they find those little details that both beautiful and create a great user experience. The site focuses on particulars where you might have gotten a touch lazy – like progress bars, search boxes, and pagination, and by doing so hopefully give you new insights and new inspiration. Not only are the elements beautiful in and of themselves, but the site takes the extra step of explaining why they work, which – as you may remember – is what is the difference between the inspirational and the derivative.
Awwwards: This fantastic site showcases the best of the web’s agencies, designers, and developers worldwide, according to several professional judges. As a result, the content looks incredible, works well, is engaging and pushes the boundaries. This is a great place to see what the best are doing. Then the challenge becomes to do it even better.
Design Taxi: Forbes Magazine said that this is one of the “Top Five Sites for Keeping up with Creativity and Design.” And even though they are not all about design, they are still big enough that they can say something like that and it means something. Besides, it is just a great website.
Abduzeedo: To give you an idea of the quality of the site, the founder now works as a senior designer at Google. And though his loss is obviously sorely felt, they still manage to produce at least 80 articles every month to inspire you, including stuff about design, tutorials, free wallpaper, and other resources.
Sources of Indirect Inspiration
Indirect inspiration is a lot more dispersed and can be gotten from anywhere, be it art history, meditation or even playing solitaire. That is what Maya Angelou did. She famously talked about her little mind and her big mind. It was the latter who had the big ideas, but it could only get around to having them if she made sure the little mind was distracted. And so she would play cards or do crossword puzzles so that it could get to work. And as a result, she did some great work.
That is great advice.
What has always worked for me is to work on ideas in areas where there is sufficient background ‘noise’ that might just offer the inspiration I need. So when I am stuck in a creative rut, I’ll go for a walk in a new direction and let whatever interests me, interest me.
Sometimes I might go browsing through shops, particularly cheap ones with poor design. Other days, I’ll walk through suburbs and consider the hideous mansions some people thought would be a good idea to get built, then work out why they were such a bad idea – more importantly, why the person thought it would be a good one. Often figuring out what problems non-designers are trying to solve might give us insight that we would otherwise have walked right past.
Nature naturally offers an excellent way to let the mind wander free, not just because nature is a fantastic designer herself, but also because nature relieves stress and thereby allows us to get out of the narrow perspective we are holding. Moreover, I did not make that last bit about stress narrowing your view up either; there’s scientific evidence for it.
The basic idea is that positive emotions broaden our perspective and thereby allow us to be more creative while stress, anger, frustration, doubt and exhaustion narrow our focus and make us less so.
For that reason take time away. From what? From everything. Your computer, your work, your sketchbook, your phone, your boss, your clients, your house, from your thought patterns. Everything.
If you must, take a notebook in which you can write down ideas if you have them, but that is not essential. Sometimes inspiration lies in distraction. Don’t think you have the time for that? Trust me, you do.
Often a little rest can so recharge you that you can solve puzzles that have completely escaped you for days in a matter of minutes. It is not how much you work. It is how productive you are.
The difference between good design and great design
The difference between good design and great design is that the former has the right answer while the latter asks the right question. With that I mean good design takes something and then improves upon it. Great design, in the meantime, asks ‘why do we do it this way in the first place?’
The thing is that good design can, therefore, be done continuously, while great design means you need to take the time occasionally to ask the right questions.
So don’t be afraid after you are done reading this article to close your laptop and do something else for a bit, even as you let your subconscious deal with some of the problems you are dealing with. After all, haven’t you read enough articles telling you how to boost your creativity by now? How many of those made a difference?
So as Einstein did not say (though everybody thinks he did), “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”
So try something different.
Ben Brychta is an MBA student from San Jose, CA. He is big movie classics fan and loves to share his opinion on different things happening in the spheres of the film industry, design and lifestyle. You can contact him through his Twitter or Facebook
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