Overcoming Barriers to Inspiration

For most designers, the question of inspiration is usually surrounded by a good deal of obscurity. Though considered an essential ingredient for creativity, few are able to articulate it or know how to achieve it.

I don’t want to attempt a definition of inspiration, but I do want to get down on paper just a few of the necessary conditions required for inspiration. I say necessary conditions, not sufficient conditions, because I don’t believe most of us really know the magic behind what actually bring about inspiration. But I do think we can get nearer to an idea of the necessary conditions – the sine qua non (without which it could not be) – required to even make inspiration possible.

Many forces in our culture adversely affect creativity. Not only are creators (in any art or science) surrounded by external barriers to their creativity, but they face many internal, psychological barriers.

I’d like to touch on some of these barriers and suggest a few ways to “protect” our creative juices and create space for inspiration in our work. Because I am a designer, I will articulate my suggestions for designers. But the principles can still have broader application outside of the realm of a design team.

The main barriers to inspiration and a few ways to overcome them:

  1. Time: Whether the product of mere perception or actual deadlines, we tend to live under the tyranny of the urgent. When urgency dominates our conscious mind, there is little room for the muse of inspiration to bring our minds up to timeless things like goodness, truth and beauty.When consumed by the urgent, our minds fixate on actualities rather than possibilities. The tyranny of the urgent triggers a mental “fight or flight” mechanism that aims at one thing: survival. Not flourishing, not beauty, not greatness.Transcending Time

    – Well, we have obvious limitations. But often our perception of time needs to change. A few things my manager has done involve mandatory times of reflection and casual conversation at the beginning of team meetings. It is still gradually taking root across the whole company, but it is really having a positive and paradoxical affect: efficiency and creativity actually go up. I have a few theories about why this happens, but will save it for a later entry. If you can’t experiment with this, try taking walks outside to clear your mind for 15 min every few hours. Soak in the sun, breathe deeply, think about your family and friends, read some poetry, recite some formal prayers, do whatever helps you mentally “reset”.

    – I have tried to make a habit beginning to sketch and concept weeks or even months before a project is even in discussion. Meet with various stakeholders periodically to encourage them to forecast their needs so you can plan miles ahead of them.

    – Schedule a portion of your day or week to catch up on emails or other tasks that tend to demand immediate response but don’t actually require your immediate attention. Flag emails in Outlook, keep a list of lower priority tasks and put these aside before they side-track you. For me, a combination of Basecamp project management software and Post-It notes has worked nicely.

    – If your position allows it, try to set reasonable deadlines for yourself that give more time than you think you’ll need and either deliver early or deliver on time with a final product that goes above and beyond the original project description. (Just be aware of the precendent and expectation you set by consistently doing this :-))

    – For those of us who are employed designers, there will always be the brutal reality that businesses operate on efficiency. One thing I have done is made time for myself on weekends or after work to sketch, concept and do mock-ups just for the hell of it. I create imaginary brands and place them in various made-up communication scenarios. If you don’t discipline yourself to spend some of your own time on design, I don’t think you’ll sustain creativity at work (unless your workplace is exceptional).

  2. False Dichotomies: We tend to pigeon hole ourselves by thinking our work must either be creative or strategic (towards business objectives), either visually appealing or functional, either quality or efficient.Defeating the Dichotomy

    – Try to catch yourself in specific situations criticizes yourself or others using either/or reasoning. Instead of contradicting your peer (or yourself) identify the value in your position and theirs. Fess up, apologize (if need be), laugh about it, then approach the (I think) fun challenge of finding creative ways to make both seemingly opposed ideas work together.

    – Audit your past work and try to identify instances where you compromised and gave into either/or thinking. Point out specifics where you could have challenged yourself to embrace other seemingly opposed ideas and made your work great. Invite others you trust to help you identify these instances.

    – Meet with stakeholders and list out all the various needs (IT, marketing, VPs, CEO, CFO, etc.). It’s is a practical way to consistently challenge yourself to embrace seemingly opposed values and goals. When you succeed, you reap the added benefit of building trust with those stakeholders, which improves relationships in a post that can be very relationally difficult.

  3. Auto-pilot: We stagnate when we use the skills and processes that have become second nature as a substitute for creativity instead of as a tool in the toolbox to supplement and empower creative process. This can be closely linked to the tyranny of the urgent mentioned above.Taking Back the Stick

    – When I have made the unfortunate mistake of making my primary goal efficiency, I often slip into auto-pilot. While I do highly value efficiency, I still have to find the delicate balance between quality and efficiency. Ideally, I am constantly improving in both. For every project, I don’t just set deadlines and quantitative goals with stakeholders, I set qualitative goals for the aesthetic and artistic quality of the deliverables. This builds qualitative value into the project process and helps (many) stakeholders feel valued as much as your commitment to efficiency and ability to meet quantitative goals.

    – Sometimes, we become bored with projects that seem largely repetitive and limiting. Budget, time, brand identity, stakeholders, etc. can make you slip into robot-mode because your heart just isn’t in it anymore. I highly recommend creating imaginary sub-brands or sister brands (on your own time) to help you see your actual brand in a new light.

  4. Monologue: No one ever sustained creativity on their own for very long. Our work tends to come to life when we invite others into the creative and critical process.Stop Talking to Yourself

    – Dialogue with others challenges us to listen to and try on differing perspectives. Dialogue helps us deconstruct our small, subjective notions, and disposes us to listen for the ever-elusive but undeniable muse that shows up in the midst of true dialogue. In short, monologue encourages us to becomes pridefully self-satisfied with our “own” ideas, while dialogue humbles us by challenging us to listen,. Listening is one of the essential virtues of any artist. NOTE: To protect a dialogue from turning into an argument, it can be helpful to set rules (get creative with them). For example, you can require that every team member begin their responses with “Yes, and” (rather than “yeahhhh, but…”). There is a difference between dialogue and discussion, between discovery and critical analysis. They each have their place, but put them in their proper order and try not to mix them.

    – Immerse yourself in blogs, newsletters, Twitter feeds, Facebook and LinkedIn groups, sign up for webinars, download whitepapers, subscribe to magazines and other marketing publications, attend conferences, lectures and workshops, and make friends with like-minded designers.

  5. Failure to separate the creative and editorial process: When we hastily jump into scrutinize or polishing up our work when we have only just begin to sketch crude concepts, we don’t give the space our minds need to experiment with how to bring a vision to reality. Imagine a teacher giving an art student a paint brush to paint with. But the teacher gave no room to be silly and absurd, to experiment, to struggle, to be stuck, or to fail. The student would probably give up art altogether, or perhaps study up on the rigid “rules” of art and learn to mimic them well (though the result would be uninspired work).We tend to subject ourselves to the same hasty mentorship. Sometimes the cause is fear and self-doubt, sometimes it is angst over meeting a deadline. Introspection is always good for anyone experiencing the dreaded writer’s block, which affects us all from time to time.Sometimes Compartmentalizing is Good

    – For yourself, create and envision before editing and censoring your ideas. It’s as simple as that. You may have to go back and forth multiple times, but keep the two stages separate.

    – Implementing clear and distinct creative and editorial processes for your design team may present more complicated challenges. Stakeholders and company culture may resist such attempts and perceive them as being unflexible.

    – Invite stakeholders into the creative process at distinct phases of the project process and editorial process.

    – Set specific points for which you desire stakeholders’ input and emphasize the value these points have for you providing them with high-quality deliverables. From my limited experience, this helps bring mutual trust and understanding when attempting to implement formal changes to the project process.

My list and suggestions are by no means comprehensive. They are just a start. I have not mentioned some barriers simply because they are rather obvious. For example, sometimes lack of skills, resources and proper environment can inhibit creative inspiration.

My hope is that this list helps identify some ways to overcome internal and external challenges to creativity encourage anyone in any kind of work to thaw their cynicism about enjoying work and to discover renewed inspiration in their day-to-day work.