Inspiration is a necessity for professionals from creative industries, such as UX design. Yet, it is often mistaken for something that is spontaneous and accidental and most definitely out of our control, something we cannot train.
This assumption is fundamentally wrong because it prevents many people from fully realizing their creative potential. If you try to understand the nature of inspiration, you’ll see that it can and should be nurtured and tamed. We set out to untangle the matter and talked to designers about how one can stay inspired at all times.
According to a piece of scientific research by the Department of Psychology at the US College of William and Mary, there’s a tripartite conceptualization which specifies the three core characteristics of the state of inspiration: evocation, transcendence, and motivation.
Evocation implies that one does not feel directly responsible for getting into a state of inspiration. There's always a stimulus — a person, an idea, or a work of art — that evokes it. While in the state, the individual gains awareness of new possibilities that transcend ordinary or mundane concerns. So once inspired, the individual experiences a compelling motivation to transmit, actualize, or express their new vision.
INSPIRATION EXISTS, BUT IT HAS TO FIND YOU WORKING
Spoiler alert — neither; both are equal.
For decades, there’s been a belief among scientists that perspiration is more crucial to the creative process than inspiration itself. Thomas Edison, who introduced the famous formula ‘One percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration,’ is partially responsible for that. But how applicable is it, really?
Research shows that inspiration and effort influence different aspects of the final product. Inspiration predicts the level of creativity of the output, whereas the creator’s effort impacts the technical merit of the result. It’s interesting to learn that inspired writers, for instance, produce more words and retain more of their original wording, and writers who exercise more effort delete more words and make more pauses to think.
In a study titled Inspiration as a Psychological Construct, psychologists Todd M. Thrash and Andrew J. Elliott noted that inspired people are more open to new experiences and show bigger absorption in their tasks. Such individuals are also reported to have a stronger drive to master their work, and at the same time are less competitive. But, what’s even more important, beneficial consequences of inspiration (besides mastery of work, absorption, creativity, and perceived competence) include belief in one’s own abilities, self-esteem, and optimism. This suggests that inspiration helps creators tap into important psychological resources.
It’s been common knowledge that inspirational stimuli can boost the creative process and help to find good solutions for design problems. Yet, it had never been proved scientifically until recently, when Carnegie Mellon University’s researchers Kosa Goucher-Lambert and Jonathan Cagan, in collaboration with an associate professor of psychology at Mississippi State University, conducted an experiment and used MRI to explore 12 designers’ brain activation while the designers were engaged in developing solutions with and without inspirational stimuli. The scientists found out that inspirational stimuli allowed participants to remain productive and generate ideas for a longer period of time, and that with outside stimuli the designers were able to come up with more solutions than without any stimuli.
In another piece of research, Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa discovered that the presence of external visual stimuli of different kinds in a designer's work environment affects performance in terms of practicality, originality, and creativity. Long story short: the more you surround yourself with external stimuli — be it websites, magazines, apps, or other resources, maybe not even strictly related to Design — the more inspired you are and the longer you remain in a state of inspiration.
In his book, How to Have Great Ideas: A Guide to Creative Thinking, John Ingledew provides a wealth of exercises for the imagination. As he says, “It’s important to warm up and exercise the imagination so that it’s nimble, mobile, and speedy.” This can also be applied to inspiration — sometimes it simply needs a boost.
I train myself to take the ordinary out of the ordinary. For instance, one can try and think of numerous ways to use a simple product, like a spoon. It’s good to reflect on how ordinary products can be used in the most unusual ways possible. Ever thought of how you could be stuck in a difficult situation with only a spoon to save you?
The other thing that helps me are mundane tasks, like cleaning, cooking, making the bed, and organizing my workspace. These activities can really trigger ideas. When you repeat the same actions before getting to creative work long enough, it eventually creates an association that tells the mind to get in that particular ‘zone’. I also think you can nurture your creative nature and expand your mindset by surrounding yourself with like-minded people. I search for people like that on LinkedIn, but anything can help, from attending online conferences and industry events to simple meet-ups.
If I’m trying to get my creative juices flowing, I occasionally go through multiple random design challenges and give myself 15 minutes for each challenge to practice asking the right questions. I also employ empathy to help myself develop ideas. When I put myself in others' shoes, I find new perspectives that would have never occurred to me, had I focused on a single context with which I was familiar. I try to stay away from jumping right to solutions because I usually end up working off of assumptions and miss opportunities.
There are days when I feel totally uninspired at work, and this can happen for so many reasons, one of the main ones being a burn-out. In this case, the first thing that helps me is taking a break and getting some much-needed rest. I also invest in doing things outside of Design. I’ve recently picked up drumming and skiing, and it has been refreshing, although the latter is tough due to COVID-19 restrictions and parks being closed. I always keep in mind that it’s super important to guard my mental health, and not get burned out, in order to stay motivated at work.
It’s important to take a look at your work with a fresh set of eyes and break it down into manageable chunks. At times, a project or a task can seem overwhelming, so we forget the main idea and stall out. So it’s good to take some time and step back.
Being an artist-turned-designer, I put a lot of pressure on myself to come up with something perfect, and I often forget to realize that design is never truly ‘done’. Now, when I feel this pressure, I tell myself that it doesn’t have to be perfect on the first try and I’ll have an opportunity to improve it in the next iteration. Without this pressure, I find I can be more creative as well. I’ve also noticed I’m the most creative and/or inspired when I am able to find a balance between work and non-design-related things. Sometimes I put my work away for the weekend and spend time with my family, catch up with my friends, or go on hiking trips. There are so many experiences that help designers gain perspective, and I try to explore them all.
One thing that might cause a creative block is one’s inability to really focus and get into that ‘zone’. Before the pandemic I used to go to the public library to remove any distractions. A change of scenery always helps. Now that I am stuck working indoors, I just alternate between my room and my study — or even work in the kitchen.
Besides, I know exactly when I’m being super productive. I work better late at night, so I try to get enough work done at that time. When I am less busy, I usually check the web for design ideas and read articles. It’s great to have an arsenal of ideas that you can turn to on tough days.
Another sure-fire way for me to get over a creative block is to reach out to my designer colleagues and friends to brainstorm with them. I recommend this a lot to the team I lead. If you need help, just get on a call with a designer or a design community and get insights.”
Creation is simply a process of mixing existing ideas and consuming information by the bucket load. The more you know, the more you can create based on that knowledge. I have a couple of resources where I draw my everyday inspiration from. The CSS Design Awards website is a good place to explore UI and UX awards of the year, The Masterpicks has a lot of information on current digital trends and conversations about really cool illustrations and inspirations. When it comes to keeping track of relevant UI and UX trends, UI movement is the best source to turn to. For research, I refer to Minimalissimo and Pexels, and for high quality images for my moodboard I turn to Unsplash.
I find inspiration in everyday things and conversations — discussions on forums, social media platforms, and among my peers. Questions like ‘What problems currently exist in the world?’, ‘What types of people aren’t being included in design?’ are the ones I fall back onto to reframe any problems that I might get stuck on. If designers weren’t conscious of the experiences of the people around them, they would never feel the need to create something better.
Lately I’ve been listening to podcasts to get inspired. I enjoyed Tanner Christensen’s New Layer on Apple Podcasts or Laura Klein’s What is Wrong with UX. If you’re a junior, I would recommend listening to When is Design Done? from New Layer because it sheds light on having that balance between having product ownership and still being open to pivoting your design upon receiving feedback.
Pinterest is always my go-to place for visual design resources. For design patterns, I refer to nicelydone, siteinspire, product hunt, and awwwards for examples of real products on the market. I am not big on reading books, but I love to read Medium articles at UX collective. Other Medium articles help me out as well.
Researchers Todd M. Thrash and Andrew J. Elliott developed a brief questionnaire that allows anyone to measure their inspiration level in just 2-3 minutes. So check it out if you want to find out yours:
Inspiration frequency subscale: sum of items 1a, 2a, 3a, 4a
Inspiration intensity subscale: sum of items 1b, 2b, 3b, 4b
Overall scale: sum of items 1a, 1b, 2a, 2b, 3a, 3b, 4a, 4b
Written by Susanna A.