4 minute read

In the mood for inspiration

Alan Cho
Posted by Alan Cho on Apr 20, 2017 3:00:00 PM
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Inspiration comes in all forms. Like the motivational posters featuring kittens hanging onto a wire. The pop song that tells you to believe in yourself. Or the photos of sunsets and Oprah quotes you find all over social media.

That’s inspiration as clichés and bite-sized disposable memes. They serve as the break people take to remind themselves why they’re doing the work. For some people, that’s enough, but designers need more from their inspiration. That means looking at it in a different way. When you separate inspiration from the work it’s supposed to be inspiring, you ignore what it’s supposed to do – push past our biases to open us up to new ideas. It’s not about finding better inspiration, but creating a better process around inspiration.

Defining inspiration

In ancient days of yore, people thought of inspiration as a supernatural force. Ideas didn’t come from people, rather, they came from fickle muses and gods appearing in dreams. Even after centuries of research into the human psyche, we still have only vague ideas of how inspiration works. As the foremost experts in inspiration, psychologists Todd M. Thrash and Andrew J. Elliot are working to change that.

As part of their research, they established a more concrete definition for inspiration. Instead of the more disposable concept, their definition focuses on the characteristics that make it vital to any creative process. For something to be considered inspirational, it needs to do three things: be spontaneous, break through the mental clutter to create a moment of clarity and compel action. So as pretty as a sunset may be or as much as a mountain top view takes your breath away, it doesn’t count as inspiration until it moves you to do something.

In this concept, inspiration becomes far more essential to the actual process of work. And this is why inspiration is so important in the world of design.

Mood boards

Within the design process, inspiration has been formalized and curated into mood boards. Designers gather images, text, colors and any other elements that could help explain an idea that doesn’t exist yet and articulate the vision of a project. It’s far more efficient than investing time and energy into creating and designing something that ultimately may not work. It’s a useful tool that, as Creative Bloq blog explains, “exists as a designer’s tactile and visual sandbox, a place where they can openly experiment with the different facets of design.”

As timelines shrink and deadlines rapidly approach, mood boards are the first thing to get cut, because clients just want results. But inspiration should not be expendable as it forms the foundation of collaborative design work. Instead of cutting out mood boards, designers should focus on making the process more effective by adhering to the principles of inspirations set by Thrash and Elliot.

Be spontaneous

Originally, mood boards were physical objects. Designers would cut out and paste their inspirational assets onto foamcore or cardboard. But that approach is not conducive to spontaneity. When inspiration strikes, you don’t want to spend time trawling through drawers for a glue stick.

An effective mood board needs to be digital to stay true to the spontaneous nature of inspiration. Already, people have traded in their foamcore for Pinterest and other social media platforms that can be accessed through almost any device. That makes it easier to share and find inspiration all in one place.

Though that streamlines your search, it also narrows what you’ll find. If you’re looking for new ideas and perspectives, you’re not going to find them in your social media feed. Collaboration is the best way to curate inspiration.

Spontaneous design

Creating a moment of clarity

It can be hard to get away from yourself. You’re with yourself all day, stewing in the biases and experiences that shape how you see the world. For inspiration to work, it needs to cut through all of that to create a moment of clarity.

Yet, just as design is collaborative, so is inspiration. Sure, you have your own way of thinking, but so does every other designer. A mood board is the perfect opportunity to bring together disparate sets of inspiration into one place. In studies conducted by Thrash and Elliot, they found that inspiration made people more receptive to new ideas. Thus, inspiration begets more inspiration, creating creative jumping off points that you wouldn’t have discovered on your own.

Through that process, you start building consensus around the parameters of your project. A good mood board articulates a specific vision for a design, but when created collaboratively, it helps get everybody together on the same page. Instead of a creative direction dictated from on high, that direction can emerge organically from creative people sharing what inspires them.

Clarity in design

Compel action

Laying down the conceptual groundwork for a project can be the most daunting part of the process. Part of that is the pressure to create something bold and new, a problem exacerbated by the fact that you’re not even sure what it should look like.

But there is nothing bold and new. That’s marketing speak that has too often been internalized by designers. Design is an iterative craft, building upon the work established by others. When creating a mood board, you’re admitting that to yourself. Inspiration, symbolized by all those photos and quotes, becomes the building blocks for your creation. When you place your mood board within that context, you can ensure you stay focused on the goals of your project by comparing what you’re doing with where you started. You can trace the lineage of your design to the designs that inspired it. That’s how you sustain momentum as you work.

Momentum in design

Work through inspiration

Inspiration needs to compel you to create. In creating mood boards that facilitate spontaneity and collaboration, you create your own motivation. With your mood board, you’re saying “this is what I’m aspiring to” and, as a team, you set out to get as close as you can to that ideal. That’s the power of inspiration. It’s not about evoking good feelings, it’s about evoking action.

Topics: Creativity Design Thinking