We’ve all gotten drunk on the myth of it.
Spending too long sitting around, drinking in our own creative genius, waiting for inspiration to arrive.
Every creative industry probably has its own legends of divine inspiration – physicists have Newton’s apple, us designers have Scher’s Citibank logo.
Such mythology causes us to don a caricatured mask, giving us a warped view of what and how a designer does what they do.
This masks confuses us – has us think that out there in the ether is a beautifully wrapped idea, waiting to be placed gently in our laps. We pretend that work isn’t needed, that we’re creative—creative damn it—and ideas will spring forth for us, not us for them.
So we do nothing but wait. We wait for something unreliable, often misleading, and usually kind of meaningless. We wait for half-finished ideas that need to be massaged, or even worse, ideas that serve as distraction from the problems we actually have to solve.
The scariest thing about wanting to be inspired like this, to be gifted a moment of genius, is that we often do so to simply be distracted from something we don’t understand.
In having our attention inspired down the wrong line, we not only lose the opportunity to understand the problem at hand, we give up any hope of finding a unique solution.
The search for inspiration turns into a depthless hole into which we throw time and energy, not doing what we can actually do in the hope of not having to do what we can.
Inspiration Lets Us Escape
Inspiration is damn sexy. It’s a beautiful thing, teasing our attention with a light touch to the arm and a whisper so heard it’s barely a hush.
In the moment we’re so drunk on its attention that we think following it out of the room is the best thing to do.
Have you ever noticed how often you’re “inspired” by a great idea when you’ve got a hard problem to solve?
And the problem we’re often charmed to tends to be an easy one. A quick-win problem, one hardly, if at all, related to what we’re working on.
As the new problem starts to come into focus, what once seemed simple starts to become complicated. Our beautiful and charming easy problem is now ugly and difficult.
“Hearing about other people’s success isn’t the same thing as creating your own.”
We get confused by chasing a win, rather than chasing understanding, that we suddenly find ourselves thinking about problems we assume we’ll have an easy time solving.
Then our focus is either split between two problems, or worse, we’ve abandoned the old one completely. Any energy and effort we’re able to put into solving any problem quickly diminishes below anything usable.
While we might wear the mask of a caricatured creative, I think inspiration can sometimes wear one of hollow novelty.
We might be able to escape the hard problem in front of us with this distraction, but before long we end up in a worse hell than we started in.
We Lose So Much When We Search For Inspiration
But inspiration doesn’t always silk into the room. We’re often the one doing the chasing.
In doing so we lose a great deal.
The time lost in the chase is obvious enough, but it’s the time lost once we grab onto it that’s the most worrisome.
When we’re stuck, when we need inspiration the most, we get so high off the smallest hints of it. We’re eager to just get something done, and even if that something isn’t borne from the problems we’re trying to solve, we don’t care.
This happens within a project, too. Trouble typesetting the copy can suddenly turn into inspiration on how to design the landing page.
“Better beware of notions like genius and inspiration. They are a sort of magic wand and should be used sparingly by anybody who wants to see things clearly.”
José Ortega y Gasset
With the loss of this time goes the space to clarify an idea.
Gaining any kind of deep understanding, especially around a tough problem for which we’re trying to find an answer, can be very hard work.
When we sit around and wait for inspiration, whether we’re looking for it or not, we lose energy and time to simply try things.
Time, energy, and the willingness to try are what feeds hard work, that thing that lets us actually solve the right problem in the right way.
Trying might be what we’re desperately wanting to escape from.
We’re hard-wired to escape failure, and that’s what trying often leads to. Understanding and knowledge is often found amongst a field of dead ideas, and that’s a place few people are willing to wad through the stench of.
So instead of being willing to start with the minor pain of not knowing something, of how to uniquely deal with the problem before us, we escape into what we do know – pretty, probably distracting enough, pictures.
Which is what most of us mean when we talk about “inspiration”. Beautiful, distracting, easy to appreciate, barely relatable, pretty pictures.
Which is a shame, because once we have enough understanding and knowledge, we can easily find the obvious solution, one that only makes perfect sense in retrospect. The kind of idea that looks as if it was conceived in minutes, but has a birth that demands hours.
Because it could have been a solution that was discovered through a deep understanding of client/problem, and solution/audience, it could be one tailored perfectly for each.
Worst is when we hope for inspiration half way through gaining this inspiration, when the smell becomes too much, and we just want to be whisked away.
In these moments, novelty masked inspiration can leave us stranded and undo hours of work, while creating a demand for hours more.
Sticking to the hard work, to understand what we must so we can create what is needed, then we can go about making something that is beautiful and effective in more than whatever surface aesthetic we can pinch while looking for “inspiration.”
Hard Work Beats Inspiration
Being inspired to jump off track, or trying to encourage its arrival is not a bad thing.
The spark of inspiration is one of the greatest joys of doing creative work.
But it’s concerning when we forget about the work part of creative work, and want to try and shortcut our way out of doing what has to be done, or avoid admitting to not knowing or understanding something.
In that, it boils down to being an ego-driven avoidance. We chase after creative genius instead of doing hard-turned-clever work.
Looking for this kind of inspiration normally leads us to browse through books, online galleries, and portfolios.
This trolling ends when we find the result of someone else’s efforts and think it a good enough solution to the problem we’re trying to solve and slap a bastardised version of it together as a solution.
When I think about the masters of our craft I can’t imagine them diving off of the project brief and straight into a mindless hunt for inspiration, let alone sitting around and waiting for it.
I picture them striving to understand the audience, as well as the solution to their problem the client has, and how to bridge the two.
I picture them working hard, learning and trying and failing and trying and sketching and trying, that before long the shape of that bridge is so clear in their minds they’ve just got to take a few easy steps.
What the maters of our craft know, and what the rest of us have to remind ourselves every time we’re stuck, is that work beats inspiration.