Consumption: How Inspiration Killed, Then Ate, Creativity

Owen Shifflett, Art Director

Article Category: #Design & Content

Posted on

Inspiration Consumption

For creatives, the definition of the word "inspiration" has lost its meaning. It's no longer a spark of intuition to solve the uniqueness in a problem, but a search for the current and complacent solutions created by others.  As a creative collective the term "inspiration" has driven us to become lethargic to the realities, foundations, and intentions of our chosen craft.

The misinterpretation of inspiration is bred into our culture. In school we are taught by the examples of others, given information to digest and remember, instead of being handed problems to analyze and interpret on our own. As children we are taught to fear failure and to learn from the mistakes of others instead of experiencing them first hand. Many times curriculums centered around creativity and exploration are pushed out of the way to make room for ones rooted in practical application and applied theory. An example of this logic is painfully evident in design schools that focus more time on learning design applications than nurturing creative exploration and development.

The reality is that it's easier to be inspired than it is to create an original idea and we are hardwired to take the path of least resistance. It's easier to jump onto a design inspiration gallery site than it is to sit down with a blank sheet of paper and a pencil. It's easier to follow a pattern than it is to test-drive new options. It's easier to copy a style or idea that works than try something that might miss the mark or outright fail. Above all, it's cheaper mentally for us to rally around what's already been done and emulate it.

When we over-saturate ourselves in other people's work it short-changes our own creative development. For example, so many of the design inspiration sites on the web today serve up content in bite-sized chunks, resulting in a form of visual junk food. While the work featured on these sites can be some of the best our industry has to offer, the way that it's displayed usually throws concept and story out the window in place or pure visual sugar.  The story of a design (the problem and solution) are stripped away so only the visual execution is left to absorb. This view of design rots away the core foundations of our profession.

Design applications act in a similar capacity if you let them. The ability to jump right into Photoshop has cut down concept time purely because it's so easy to tinker and play in the app. This can lead very quickly to creating recycled and tired executions. Thought process and trial and error have been traded in for ease of use and familiarity. There seem to be so many designers that fear a pencil and paper these days. The worry of having to fill a blank space with ideas is only trumped by the want to arrive at a decision in the least amount of time, with the least amount of effort. This search for convenience often leads to "searching for inspiration" instead of fueling creative solutions through exploration and trial and error. The mentality that says "answers and solutions are just a few clicks away" cheapens the creative process as a whole and creates a vicious cycle of tired ideas.

This new form of inspiration is consuming creativity, but only if we continue to feed it. If we as designers can learn to fight the urge for quick answers and focus more on unique, lasting solutions that revolve around defining problems, there's a chance to  turn it all around. Finding new appreciation for both concept and execution (and their relationship to each other) will spark greater conversation within our communitity about how and why design is important in the first place.


Additional Thoughts

Since writing this article, I've received a lot of feedback, both for and against the topic. It's really interesting to see what people had to think about the topic, parts of it they focused on, and things they took away. At first I was worried about posting this essay. I realized that it was a topic that could potentially aggravate and alienate. The topic of "what is creativity" is itself an old argument (as some of you have pointed out below) and it's one that has been talked about in may different settings for a very long time. The question of originality, which could be argued as a core element of creativity, is another topic that has been a heated debate long before the internet came about.

After posting the article I was relieved to see that people put the article in reference to their own experiences. They made it personal. Whether they were designers, photographers, illustrators, educators, or a mix of the lot, the discussion shifted to how we individually interpret our roles and jobs in the creative field and the trials and tribulations it takes to keep pace as a creative in the information age. I found it fascinating that the question of inspiration and imitation (while still present in many of the comments) took a backseat to more directed concerns, whether it be a falling off of collaboration between copywriter and designer, the missteps of education in modern art schools, or even going as far to say that the topic is a "phenomenon of your awareness" (which I can agree to on some levels.) So is there a right answer? I don't really think so. As creatives we need to decide what works best for ourselves as individuals. For me the magic of design is in the trial and error. It's in the wracking my brain until a solutions comes out. It's in the search for an execution, not in the execution itself, that give me the most personal satisfaction. I still stand by my observation that the best solutions come from hard work and focus and not industry trends and standards. Are we going to be original and unique every time? Probably not. But I would argue that the chase and risk of failure is worth the extra sweat and toil.

I'd like to pass on few articles/opinions/threads that were written by others that have different takes on this topic. If you have a article on the subject, or a follow up, send it over and I'll add it to the list. Thanks!

In the Defence of Inspiration

Is Inspiration Killing Creativity?

Inspiration And/Or Creativity

Owen Shifflett

Owen is a ferociously passionate collaborator and independent thinker for clients such as PUMA, Cisco, and Dick's Sporting Goods. He is an art director at Viget's HQ in Falls Church, VA.

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