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Where Design Professionals find Inspiration

Tips on feeding creativity and finding new ways to meet challenges

October 24, 2018

A group of young people work together in an office filled with natural light
Creativity often requires both extroverted idea-exchange and introverted rumination

Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask how creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.

Steve Jobs

As a long-standing foundry, our company has grown with innovation—our individual products, place in the site-furnishings market, and operations have all evolved over the years. Some feel that the metal casting industry is old and divorced from the world of invention, but our company’s development belies that. Each of our products and processes began as a concept and went through creative brainstorming to get from idea to physical object.

Our bollard product lines are practical: they’re created to protect people and guide traffic. Yet that’s not all they’re for. A concrete barrier can do a similar job, but in some places, it might also be a jarringly industrial element that carries the hint of threat. As we design tools meant for safety, we also must envision the streetscape they will create or influence, considering the context. We create for both function and form, and so the process is not as simple as finding a need and answering it. Our bollards are inspired by history, trends in architecture, or the unique circumstances and aesthetics of a region or a client, as well as the vision of our individual designers. For example, Sean Wan, our lead engineer and designer, says: “I find mathematics inspiring. Usually people don’t realize how beautiful mathematics is, until they see it visualized.”

Many of those we work with, including specifiers, architects, planners, and designers, also spend their working lives creating plans and designs they will then see through to construction or manufacture. They’re also often carefully tending the balance between user experience, meaning, and needed performance. It’s no wonder that managing these impulses can sometimes leave a creative professional feeling stuck or indecisive, hoping for an illuminating strike of inspiration to bring things into perspective. Yet simply waiting for this moment doesn’t always put a solution together. How can a designer nudge inspiration along?

We surveyed successful creative professionals to learn how, across many different fields, they encourage new ideas. Several strategies shone through.

Inspiration from other works

If you look at history, innovation doesn’t come just from giving people incentives; it comes from creating environments where their ideas can connect.

Steven Johnson, author of Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation

When we look at history to inspire our designs we are reaching back to designers and architects of other eras, whose work still influences our buildings today. By understanding how our designs are rooted in historical movements, we can adapt to new realities while honoring traditional approaches.

This cross-pollination is important. Art can inspire architecture, architecture inspire music: creative work features blending and synthesis of things that have gone before to create something new.

A smiling man in a hardhat and glasses holds an audio tester in a black and white photograph no caption

“Our design firm works in the field of building acoustics. As such we design acoustic sensitive environments directly with architects. While the architect works in the visual aesthetic and operational aspects of a structure, we design the aural impression that a visitor or worker experiences. We take our inspiration from classic structures such as European cathedrals and performance spaces, as well as Greco-Roman theaters.”

— Thomas Ryan, Technological Design Studios

A laughing woman in black clothing leans casually against a plinth.

“I’m an interior designer in New York and I work for a small firm designing offices, mostly for tech startups with a few residential projects here and there.

When looking for inspiration, I think it’s important to really let it come from anywhere, while speaking to the client’s brand, mission, and style. Locale can also play a big part!

For an engineering firm in a classic loft space in a port town, we derived a color palette from a series of vintage postcards of New England towns, the mint green of classic drafting surfaces, and the navy blue from their logo, and used modern furniture & lighting that had a vintage twist.

I think it’s important when designing an office to not limit yourself solely to a client’s brand identity, but to cast a wider net in order to give them a space that’s truly interesting and not just a stamp out of what they’ve done before.”

— Brigid Bjorklund, JIDK

A close up of a dandelion puff with half the seed fluff missing
Nature’s patterns can seed new ideas.

Inspiration from nature

In every walk with nature one receives more than he seeks.

John Muir, “Father of National Parks”

People are often refreshed by taking a walk in a natural setting. A 2006 study showed walking in a pleasant green space enhanced mood and self-esteem more than walking alone. For creative people, a walk in nature may have a similarly enhancing effect: in 2014, a study at Stanford University made an explicit connection between walking and divergent, creative thinking, showing that participants were better at coming up with odd uses for everyday items when they were walking than when they were seated.

For many creative people, reliance on the natural setting is so complete as to be hard to articulate. Going outside allows an artist to see larger patterns like the ordered golden-mean geometry of the sea shell or the chaotic stippling of light through the leaves of an oak tree. Sometimes these natural patterns have a direct influence on the work being done, and sometimes they are merely fuel for the subconscious mind.

A woman with a knowing smile stands in front of a blooming broom shrub

“…I find inspiration through nature. Nature decomposes what it is not using or what is alive. On the opposite end we have humans who keep clutter and cannot find peace within our own homes. We keep so much clutter around us and forget to discard items that are of no value to us. Nature does not keep clutter. We can use the simplicity of nature as inspiration for our homes and design work. Imagine vastness, feel smooth lines, touch wood, include an array of textures. Clutter is chaos, natural is peaceful and inspirational.”

— Victoria Vajgrt, The Transformation Project: Home organization design

A thoughtful looking man sits at a table with his head resting against his hand in a black and white photograph

“Great design is always a harmonious balance of form and function executed in an eye pleasing way. … Great design is always in harmony with its surroundings.

I try to get a feel for the surroundings–both natural and man-made.

To quote the X-Files—The Truth is Out There. I really believe that there is basically a river of knowledge from which we can all drink. Seek and you will find.”

— Pablo Solomon, Artist and Designer

The warped glass of a building reflects an odd view of an old church
Jumpstart creativity by finding an unusual viewpoint.

Inspiration from clients

Creativity involves breaking out of established patterns in order to look at things in a different way.

Edward de Bono, author of Lateral Thinking: Creativity Step by Step

Looking at an issue from a different perspective allows us to try something new.

The biggest source of this perspective shift can be from clients themselves. Finding this inspiration from clients is a deliberate process, because it is easy to get comfortable in our areas of expertise. We likely have seen a problem before, and experience can make us jump right to what we suspect is the correct solution. If we put expertise aside for a moment and meet clients with curiosity and adaptability, we have the opportunity to co-create something new. This approach requires taking time to listen and ask many questions without assuming we understand everything about the client’s motivation. It also requires we not jump in with standard solutions. Of course, expertise and experience will inform the solution—it is this skill the client is paying for—but if curiosity and a willingness to see something new comes first, a designer can spend time teasing out needs, attitudes, and approaches that might be unique or surprising.

Such great communication can lead to “aha” moments, both large and small.

A laughing woman in black clothing leans casually against a plinth.

“When designing the headquarters for a flooring company, we were inspired by the plank effect they had incorporated into their logo and translated this to a diagonal wood pattern that we used to clad a large internal volume.

[Once client] wanted to translate the Scandinavian aesthetic of their New York office to something that would go well in their new Los Angeles branch, so we looked at mid mod, Eames, the case study houses, and considered how to bring that into the space.”

— Brigid Bjorklund, JIDK

A head shot of a smiling man in glasses looking at the camera

“I draw my inspiration from my remodeling clients. They are placing their money at risk, and gambling that I will provide them with a solution that not only looks great but which meets their needs as well.

Despite the fact that all homeowners do the same projects (kitchens, bathrooms, additions, etc.), each design always has a unique solution. Obviously, their homes differ slightly, but even so, their needs, their aspirations, and their budgets differ greatly as well. Then there’s the consideration of what they ‘like’ and what they hope to accomplish on top of it all.

I am always thrilled by solving the 3-D puzzle. But even more, I love delivering a solution that provides delight in addition to satisfying their fundamental requirements. That remains a joy each and every time it happens.

What I’ve learned is that such remodeling solutions are rare. Consumers don’t get that kind of care and effort in most remodeling situations. So it remains my goal for every remodeling design that I perform, that the client will walk into that revised space every new day and say ‘damn, I’m glad I did this project.’ Nothing thrills and inspires me more.”

— Jim Molinelli, Architect and Remodeling Expert

A thoughtful looking man sits at a table with his head resting against his hand in a black and white photograph

“I try to understand how my clients want to feel in a given space, what image they want to project and what needs to be done in that space. I then want them to share any photos or clippings, etc. that they feel look the way they are hoping their space to look. We then discuss what appeals to them about those ideas. I love the challenge of creating a space/structure/landscape that tells their story with my design palette.

It is remarkable how often a calm mind without preconceived notions can allow the surroundings and the desires of the clients to generate creative ideas. God wants to bless us in good endeavors.”

— Pablo Solomon, Artist and Designer

Creating the stage for success

There is no innovation and creativity without failure. Period.

Brene Brown, author of Daring Greatly

There is an idea that creative professionals spend most of their time in the play of ideas. We are captivated by the idea of yelling “Eureka!” and by image of the visionary bringing something new to the world. Yet these moments of illumination come to be realized, in most cases, with a lot of patience, work, and dedication. Stumbles and mis-starts are essential. Repetitive work with attention to detail is often vital to the execution of an idea. The original creative inspiration is often reworked, through the hours of labor that bring a concept to life, and each of these workaday moments provide a very different sort of inspiration, one that builds expertise and fluidity.

One practical way to stay inspired for the long term is to look around and appreciate the hours of care that went into objects, art, and processes already in the world. Even something as often-overlooked as bollards have a long history and active design!

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