The trouble with creative inspiration


Inspiration is troublesome, particularly if you’re actively pursuing it in hopes that it can help you accomplish something.

In his book, The Design Method, Eric Karjaluoto explains the trouble with inspiration:

“The problem with inspiration is that it’s random, which leads you to focus your hope on outside influences you can’t rely on…These stimuli aren’t under your control, available on tap, or always relevant to the work at hand. Thinking you can find ideas elsewhere leaves you flipping through magazines and browsing the web, hoping you’ll stumble on a magic cure.”

You may disagree, but it’s hard to argue that inspiration – in the context of hoping it will lead to creative insights – is a wasted effort.

The purpose inspiration should serve is as a fueling source for ideas, not as a quick route to insights.

If you’re not actively working on a project or problem, seeking out inspiration should be viewed as a welcome exercise. In your downtime you should actively be pursuing things that inspire you: exploring new artists or writers, reading strange books, listening to new types of magazines, and generally browsing the Internet or local bookstore for sparks of inspiration.

However, if you’re in the middle of a project and find yourself stuck, spending your time seeking inspiration is a sign you aren’t prepared to do the work itself.

Instead of seeking inspiration from outside influences, we should instead focus our attention on what it is we’re trying to do and how understanding the problem or task can lead to natural insights.

I explored this notion in another article I wrote, titled Where inspiration should sit at the table of design:

“Looking for inspiration is a sign that we may not fully comprehend the problem….by fully exploring the landscape of the problem, the situation that led to it being a problem, and how different solutions will affect the intended outcome, you are much more likely to land on an idea naturally, or know what to look for when you step away from the project for rumination or the enticing search for inspiration.”

Inspiration can certainly be helpful, but it’s more of a resource to utilize before you start your work rather than a solution-finding tool when you’re actively working.

If you find yourself seeking inspiration during a project, consider the fact that the desire to do so may be a symptom of not having a full understanding of what it is you’re trying to do.