The questions I get asked when people interview me or when people meet me after reading the blog for some time are always quite similar. The questions usually revolve around something like, “how to you think of this stuff??” At first, I’d usually mutter something about them popping up in my dreams – which is sometimes true – but after more and more people asking the same question and me being forced to actually come up with a comprehensible answer, I have found that there are several actions or exercises that consistently contribute to my idea bank when I’m designing my product line or even just exploring blog ideas.
But this isn’t necessarily just about my mind frame. For all designers seeking inspiration, it’s always been a bit of a ‘the chicken or the egg’ scenario. I’ve heard people say that you can’t force design and that the ideas and thoughts just have to come on their own time, but I also know designers who work for someone other than for themselves and they can’t just tell their bosses that the idea fairy didn’t visit. When it’s your job to be creative, you need to have a secret arsenal of actions to take to spur and fuel that which is inherently inside of you.
For me, I’ve pinpointed a series of thought-provoking actions can usually spur up a flurry of ideas and will help you to fuel your creativity, and I’ve also weighed in with a few of my more corporate design friends to get their take as well.
#1 Get Out
Get out of behind your computer, desk, workbench, whatever. If you work in an office, this can be as simple as going on a walk or taking a tea break. For me, it usually involves heading to a place that is outside of my business norm. I head downtown to our artisanal market, get a coffee and just let my brain breathe. I try not to fill this time with anything social and literally just try to make my mind as blank as possible. The new sights, smells, and tastes usually flood my mind with ideas of another sort and most of the time end up making a big connection with something I’d been stuck on. A lot of times, a project just needs a pair of fresh eyes, so getting away from it does help. Sometimes when really afflicted, I’ll go running. If you know me, you know I am not a runner and do not enjoy it, but going for a run forces me away from my computer, magazines, and phone, allowing my mind to really wander.
One of my good friends and accessories designer, Katie, likes to do something mindless like housework. Sometimes when you allow the ideas to come in, they will.
2. Go Vintage
Even the Bible talks about how there is ‘nothing new under the sun’ and while pieces of our world are always evolving, there is a lot of truth to that. I am not a big vintage goods person in my own life – meaning that I don’t really have vintage furniture or clothes (aside from the fact that my entire house is an antique). I find that looking at vintage designs, patterns, mechanisms, and materials always spur an idea in me. I mean, just look at some of the texture in these vintage quilts. My mind just runs away with thoughts of how I could emulate that construction in other ways.
Obviously it isn’t just quilts, but furniture, kitchen goods, clothes, bags, machinery – all of these things have pieces and parts that are inspiring. Take a good look at the pieces, how they’re constructed, how the patterns are woven or printed, how any metal and wood pieces are molded, carved or shaped. I love taking photos or drawing a quick sketch of something inspiring then see how I can apply it to a project I’m working on.
3. New Use & Shape Exploration Exercise
Now, this is my favorite method and works best when I’m looking for 100% new ideas. I take something seemingly mundane and set it in front of me. I look at it from every angle, flip it upside down, turn it on its side, and try to imagine other ways it can be used. I’ll give you an example… I recently was staring at a metal hanging planter basket. I was doing the ‘shape exploration exercise’ –
-Upside down it could be wired with a kit and be a pendant light.
– Or maybe if draped with tulle could be one of those outdoor food thingies that protect it from bugs.
– If I had two placed with their open ends together form a sphere… what could I do with that sphere? another light fixture?
– What if I wove the basket up with rope, would it make an intriguing centerpiece?
– What if I put the two small ends together? It would be like a cat bed or something. I don’t even have a cat.
It doesn’t matter what you think about or how stupid it seems, write it down. Sometimes it’s one seemingly ridiculous idea that works its way into the winning one. A lot of times this will be the starting point for a design and the end design won’t even USE the object that started the brainstorm. That’s ok, though, it served it purpose.
This is a bit abstract, I know, but it’s where some of my most loved ideas come from. I sit somewhere completely new, and just observe. Literally, go somewhere you have never been before – a coffee shop, a bar, a restaurant, a park. Be careful and slow and take note of everything. The door, the threshold, the flooring. What are people wearing? What colors do they pair? How are the chairs made? Wouldn’t it be cool in wood instead of metal? What’s that bar counter made from? How did they get that finish? What’s the tile design in the bathroom? What is that cool molding called? Isn’t the light fixture a cool shape? It would make an awesome stool (or vase, or whatever).
A lot of times too, I’ll do this while doing #1. I’ll just walk down the sidewalk and people watch, writing down random thoughts. 9 out of 10 times, this spurs another thought or project and off I go doing research or whatever.
5. Do something creative (that is not your job)
Usually I divert to flower arranging. Pairing colors, putting together textures, picking the perfect vase all exercise my creative skills, but still let my brain breathe as well. Another one of my friends who works as a handbag and accessories designer, Krista, likes to do what she calls a ‘spelled out path to success’ – this is something that lets her keep creating, but has very structured steps which takes the creative pressure off, like baking.
For this, find a new recipe and make it to the ‘T’ without feeling pressure to change it up. Or maybe go get a paint by number or kit and follow the instructions exactly. You’ll be surprised how many thoughts of, “I could do x, y, or z to make it better” will pop up and give you original ideas.
6. Get your hands dirty
This is actually the opposite to number five, although it sounds eerily similar. Sometimes when I’m totally stuck or seeking inspiration, I just go out to the workshop or into my studio and make something totally random or abstract. Maybe I’ll paint something, maybe I’ll carve something, maybe I’ll draw something. The difference here is that you don’t quite know what the finished product is going to be and there is no pressure to have something tangible. This is the equivalent to brainstorming with your hands instead of your mind. Look at what tools are available, think about what you can make with them, and just make something. This is a forceful way that I get my buns in gear. The outcome of this exercise is rarely pretty or useful, but the thoughts that stem from it are. If you’re a graphic designer, this might just be getting a new paintbrush and doodling with it. For me, a few months ago I bought a piece of mosaic marble tile that I thought was pretty and I just tore it apart and started playing with the pieces imagining what it could make. I ended up gluing them all to a box which looked terrible, but it gave me the idea to design a marble inlay serving board for my spring line.
What I’ve realized about these six things is that not only do they work when I’m feeling stuck or tapped out, but they’re also what end up prompting new ideas when I’m not even looking for them. What’s best, is that most of the time doing these things is FUN, so that’s what I call having my cake and eating it too!
Have an inspiring and productive week out there, guys.
p.s. If you’re wondering, I did not accomplish my goals of reaching out to the new retailers last week, although I did spend a chunk of time researching some new showrooms that I’d like to pinpoint to carry the line. So, it’s going right back on the list for this week.
Photos: Death to Stock – My friend Allie’s Company! Check them out!