Looking for Inspiration in Uncommon Places

As designers, we’re on a constant search for inspiration. We look for new ways to make people think, feel, and pay attention to our messages. And as designers, the natural place to go when we’re trying to beat deadlines and create something new is the internet. Pinterest, Dribbble, Instagram, AdWeek, Design*Sponge…we have a limitless online universe of resources to find what we’re looking for. With the click of a button, we can see objects and writings from the past, and dreams and visions for the future. Foreign and local. Famous and forgotten. It’s all right there. At our fingertips. One click away. There is only one catch. We have to know what to search for to find it.

And in a way, in a limitless environment, we’re still limited to what we know.

As our environment becomes more targeted, more customized, and more about us, most of our online experience only brings us what we already know. And as designers on the quest to create something new and unique, finding what we already know limits our ability to connect new dots and create something that hasn’t been done before.

A more targeted focus might sound like a dream world. We’re only spending time on the things we know are right. But that’s the problem. When it comes to creativity, what we know isn’t always the thing that will lead to new and inspiring ideas. Much of the time, it’s the unknown, the random discoveries, and the cross-topic connections that lead to something new and original.

A few months ago, I came across a collection of graphic design classics. 500+ pages of logos, posters, brochure design, and more. Some I knew very well. Others I was seeing for the first time. It was a collection of new and old. International and classics found down the street. It was at my fingertips, but as I started looking, I wasn’t sure what I would find. I wasn’t sure what would inspire me. And I wasn’t sure what it would lead to. The creativity and versatility didn’t just bring me joy, it also brought me to the realization that inspiration is rarely found by looking for the things based on what we already know. Often, inspiration is found in the unexpected. A propaganda poster from World War 2 reminding me of the importance of contrast and the feeling black, bold letters evokes, and the story of the origin of the Venn diagram taught me how simple lines have endless possibilities. It was the little things that lead to the big realizations.

With the collection of posters, I was still in my world of graphic design, but I wasn’t constrained by what I knew. The 500+ posters reminded me to look further and to find connections between unrelated topics and time periods.

We’re all subject to confirmation bias—the tendency to recall and collect information in a way that strengthens our personal beliefs. But as designers and marketers, our job is usually not to express ourselves, but rather to find ways to express our client’s brands and personality. An environment that is targeted to serve us may be hiding important information needed to express their realities. And in turn, keep us from creating unique solutions.

If we want to use the power of design to create better messages and connect our clients to the right customers, we must step into worlds we may not be familiar with. It is in the unfamiliar we can start to connect new dots and see patterns we didn’t even know existed.

Maybe inspiration isn’t a click away, but rather about stepping away, picking up a book, looking at an old poster or going out in nature without our set beliefs or ideas of what we’re hoping to find.

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