Newton wasn’t the first to see an apple fall.

But so often we hear about this inspirational myth of how it moved him toward his theory of gravity.

To be honest, I’m not even sure if there’s any truth to the story.

But it’s a myth that raises a problem that us designers are annoyingly familiar with. It ignores all the hard work that went before the moment.

Newton didn’t suddenly realise that gravity existed. What he saw was a moment of beauty.

A beauty, an inspiration, only obvious because of work done, only encouraging because of a deep understanding already had. A moment useable, workable, valuable, only because there was a space for it to be of use, for it do work, for it to be worth something.

“The oversimplification of discovery makes science appear far less rich and complex than it really is.”

Leonard Mlodinow

Spicing up the apple falling story with inspiration just makes for a meal that is, well, kind of gross.

It suggests that the luck of fleeting moments is worth more than hard-won knowledge and experience.

Between the lines, most of us (people, designer designers, though, maybe) use it as a way to gloat that our inspired ideas are as valuable as that of any ol’ genius.

It gives reason to think that all inspired ideas are of equal value and that, puff, we too shall be graced by fate.

Let’s talk about the inspired _design_ ideas, and the fruits that we, and seemingly everyone around us, have seen fall.

Clients Seeing More Than Just Apples Falling

How often have you had a client treat you as if you were nothing more than a knowledgable user of software?

How often have you had clients or friends or family who’ve had a spark or two of inspiration, and think all that’s standing between their ideas and yours is a few Adobe icons?

Or how about you? How often have you gotten high off a great burst of energy, off sparks and inspiration, then set to work, with all those icons in the dock, and then … stopped, completely empty…

This is how the myth of inspiration hurts the stories others have of us, and even the stories we tell of ourselves.

The Inspiration Myth tells us that a great idea is all that’s needed, and seeing as we all have great ideas, then surely, one of them will be enough and it just needs to be given shape, but that’s just easy and simple and comes from pressing a few buttons and scratching a few sketches, both of which, as well as the reading and researching and planning and testing and understanding can be so easily lost in the shadow drawn from the glow of a special and precious little spark.

The Inspiration Myth tricks us into thinking that an idea is worth more than work.

A Myth To Protect Us

This idea rubs you the wrong way, doesn’t it? Even if you agree with it, there’s a part of you that hates it.

I do, too. I desperately want to protect this myth of inspiration.

The Myth works well for us in two ways, as we tell ourselves that:

  1. We work with ideas every day and one day one of those ideas will be something extraordinary, all we have to do is wait.
  2. We aren’t achieving what we dream of because we’re still waiting.

In one swoop the Inspiration Myth gives us super powers and keeps us protected.

We trick ourselves into working lightly, softly, barely, because we hold out hope that inspiration will surely show up any minute now, to help make our hollow efforts substantial or even powerful.

Then when things don’t go our way, we use the myth to explain away mediocre work – we just weren’t inspired.

Running through this routine enough times has us acting like a cult-member who watches the end-of-the-world square they have circled in their calendar get crossed out.

In the absence of what we pretend will arrive, we find resolve. We become even more certain than next time it will happen, and bring with it even more force than we thought the last time we sat around waiting for things to ignite.

Not only will inspiration show up, but it will prove me a genius!

We might not say or even think such things, but it’s in there, somewhere. It’s too richly weaved into the culture of being creative for us to pretend it isn’t part of who we are.

Hell, it’s probably why most of were drawn to creative work in the first place. Not in the hope of being seen as a creative genius, but to be touched by genius, for just a moment.

More Than Apples

The Inspiration Myth devalues the effort and skill required to do our work, to make the genuine, powerful, awe-inspiring moments of inspiration that sometime spark, worth anything.

Inspiration isn’t enough.

We can show our clients, friends, and family our process and how much work is involved. It might temper their notions of the value of their genius and our own. Or they’ll think we just over-complicate the issue and genius is genius and you either have it or you don’t, and if we have to work so hard for it, then maybe we don’t.

To avoid the same faults, we have to remember that the inspired idea isn’t enough, no matter how many apps we have installed and how well we can use them.

The inspired idea isn’t enough, even if we’ve worked through hundreds like it before.

Even if it’s enough some times, it can never be replied upon to be so every time.

If we rely on it too heavily, then those “creative but don’t know how to use an ‘Adobe’” clients we have are right – we’re nothing more than button pressers that get sparked from time to time.

It’s better to work than to be inspired. It’s better to get things done, to understand problems well enough that when inspiration arrives, it’s a nicety.

Inspiration, even when it does its job perfectly, cannot be considered a requirement of creative work.

It’s worth thinking about the time spent waiting for inspiration. What if it were spent honing one’s craft instead?

Wouldn’t it be worth spending the time understanding the inner workings of the problems before us, so that the solutions we land on are so valuable in their effectiveness that they far outweigh anything that might spring from an “inspired” mind?

Wouldn’t it be worth understanding the problem well enough so that an apple falling to the ground isn’t just an apple falling to the ground?