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Three kinds of inspiration (and how they relate to three different parts of the body)

Where does creative inspiration come from?


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Samuel Sze

3 years ago | 7 min read

Where does creative inspiration come from?

Where do musicians find inspiration for their music? Where do researchers find their biggest breakthrough discoveries? Where do film-makers or writers come up with ideas for great stories and dialogue? How do entrepreneurs come up with innovative new products or business ideas?

I often like to think of inspiration as stemming from three basic sources (related to three different parts of the body):

1. “From the Head”: Rational Inspiration

2. “From the Gut”: Emotive Inspiration

3. “From the Subconscious”: Serendipitous Inspiration


1. “From the Head”: Rational Inspiration

The first type of inspiration is “from the head.” In business, and in many disciplines, it is often the most common source of inspiration and an essential one for many successful projects. It is the kind of creative inspiration that emerges by taking a rational approach, deploying a very systematic method of research, and a rational way of thinking. It happens when we use a logical approach to solving problems.

Often in product and design (as well as most areas of research), we seek out and define a problem, make observations and gather relevant data, develop a system/method for studying the nature of a problem, and proceed towards a solution in a very logical and systematic way. The goal of a rational approach is to collect as much quantitative and qualitative information as you can to inform insights that will drive your decisions.

In UX design, this often includes activities related to data gathering and synthesis: user research and stakeholder interviews, competitive analysis, data analysis, documentation of use cases and scenarios, and the development of conceptual models upon which we can base our design decisions.

One designer who I have often thought of as being quite innovative, while having a rigorously rational approach to design is the dutch architect, Rem Koolhaas, who I saw speak in Seattle years ago when one of his designs, for the Seattle Public Library had just completed construction.

At first glance, OMA’s Seattle Public Library appears to be very much a sculptural building, heavily form driven in its design. It looks like a spaceship crash-landed in the middle of the Seattle streetscape, and at first glance, you might think that its design was basically a sculptural exploration by an artist. However, upon hearing Koolhaas speak about the project, I was fascinated by the rigorous and systematic research and rational thought process that informed the design.

From the start, Koolhaas and the team at OMA looked to develop an understanding of what fundamental problems the building needed to solve. They started by performing extensive user interviews with librarians, library visitors and other stakeholders to develop personas, and identify the core use cases and scenarios. This research informed how programmatic elements should relate to one another, and how different circulation systems could address different user scenarios. What emerged from this process was an interesting and novel system for building circulation and navigation that was directly driven by user functions.

Unlike many large libraries, which are normally planned as stacks of independent floors, the Seattle Public Library building was instead designed as a single continuous circulation ramp of book stacks that wrap their way up the building. Designing the stacks in this way enabled knowledge acquirers (OMA’s persona for those seeking a wider, more holistic understanding) to browse material continuously, unimpeded along the ramp, while also serendipitously discovering materials within a general research area. Meanwhile, information gatherers (the persona for people who already know exactly what books they are looking for) could access different areas of the stacks quickly and easily via elevators that moved up through the spiral, landing at places organized by Dewy Decimal section. I listened as Koolhaas systematically walked us through his thought process and the method by which his team analyzed the building program, and iteratively shuffled the program blocks to combine related activities into programmatic clusters around the spiral: kids, staff, living room, meetings, mixing chamber, reading room. The end solution was inventive, it was different from anything that had been done before, but the process which led him there was driven by a kind of rigorous rational way of thinking.

It wasn’t just a pretty object in the urban landscape, but a clever response to functional and programmatic needs.


2. “From the Gut”: Emotive Inspiration

The second type of inspiration is “from the gut.” Inspiration from the gut is the kind of inspiration that comes from a feeling or the emotive qualities of human experience, from the senses, and which translates into qualities in the work that, while less easy to articulate in an overtly logical way, are no less real and important to the success of a work. I sometimes think of inspiration from the gut as stemming from those emotive sensations that we as humans have developed over time and understand inherently through our experiences over our lifetimes.

One obvious place where emotive inspiration plays an essential role would be in music. Music evokes emotions, and whether we like a particular piece of not, there are fundamental things about music, the melody, the rhythm, the style and harmony, pace that shape the experience of a piece. A soft and slow vocal phrase sung by Dinah Washington at the start of “What a Difference a Day Makes” communicates a very different and obvious, real emotional sensation than John Williams’ opening orchestral trumpets, blasting an audience into attention at the opening credits of Star Wars.

In visual design as well as industrial design, essential qualities of a work commonly emerge from the gut and emotive / sensory forms of inspiration: things like rhythm, balance, scale, weight, color and contrast quality, pattern, texture, and style… how well these things are executed shape how we experience a product or visual composition. These days, businesses have embraced the importance of the emotive qualities of design as essential to the success of products. Apple and the iPhone, Tesla and the Model S are a couple examples of inspired sensory experiences, both physical and visual, that were essential to the success of the products.

In contrast to Rem Koolhaas (the architect who I used as an example of “from the head” inspiration), a designer who I often think of as being essentially driven “by the gut” is another architect, Tadao Ando from Japan. Where Koolhaas always seems extremely rational in his methods and analysis in his work, Ando is completely different: his work is fundamentally driven by articulation of a sensory experience.

Ando is not a prolific writer. A former boxer and carpenter by trade, Ando describes his hand as an extension of his thinking process. His process stems from sketches and models, iterative explorations that he uses to craft the sensory qualities of his buildings through the use of daylight, material, texture, and sounds. In the Church of the Light, a small chapel in Osaka, the result of this process is a building that evokes a powerful sense of serenity and spirituality and peace.

In this regard, Ando’s church is enormously successful, but the qualities that make it successful could not have been developed through a purely rational means, they could only be achieved through a rigorous exploration of the experiential sensory qualities of the work.


3. “From the Subconscious”: Serendipitous Inspiration

While we may often be conscious of Rational and Emotive types of inspiration in our work, sometimes inspiration can come from places we did not expect — a conversation with a colleague in a completely different field, a chance encounter with a study on a completely different topic, something we see randomly while walking down the street, or come across while reading. Sometimes, we stumble upon great ideas or inspiration purely by accident.

The third type of inspiration is “from the subconscious.” It is the type of inspiration which is by its nature random: ideas stumbled upon by chance, like Isaac Newton discovering gravity when he observed an apple falling out of a tree. At first, it might seem like these random discoveries are not something that we can access intentionally. After all, how can you develop a process to discover things by chance?

However, there is a method that originated with the artist, Salvador Dali, the Paranoid Critical Method, which provides a clue as to how we can intentionally seek out serendipitous discoveries through a rigorous exploration of random things. What Dali’s Surrealist Paranoid Critical Method did was intentionally and methodically juxtapose extraneous and random things together in order to discover something totally new. One famous example of this was the Lobster Telephone, where he took a lobster and a telephone and mashed them together to create a playful and somewhat bizarre object.

On the one hand, it might seem like this approach is pretty useless: after all, what is a lobster telephone good for except as a kind of surreal piece of art that is somewhat surprising and menacing to look at. However, where I think the Paranoid Critical Method becomes a useful tool is when people take those surreal discoveries and reel them back in, refine them via rational and emotive methods, and seek to turn them into something useful.

A good example of someone who I think has been extremely successful in this surrealist approach is George Lucas, in his creation of the original Star Wars Trilogy.When Star Wars: A New Hope was originally released to theaters in 1977, it blew audiences away. The designs for everything from its spaceships, to aliens, to weapons and characters were unlike anything people had seen before. Where did Lucas come up with such amazing and unusual designs? They seemed to be incredibly creative.

When Star Wars: A New Hope was originally released to theaters in 1977, it blew audiences away. The designs for everything from its spaceships, to aliens, to weapons and characters were unlike anything people had seen before. Where did Lucas come up with such amazing and unusual designs? They seemed to be incredibly creative.

However, upon a deeper examination of the different types of spaceships in the film, it becomes apparent that a lot of the designs for the ships were in fact inspired by using a Dali-like approach of juxtaposing ships with different letters of the alphabet: The X wing was simply a letter ‘X’ combined with a jet like spacecraft. The A wing was a flying capital letter ‘A,’ the Y wing a capital letter ‘Y,’ the B wing, a small letter ‘b,’ and the iconic Tie Fighter was in fact a flying letter ‘H.’ Famously, the Millenium Falcon was actually inspired by a Hamburger with an Olive sticking out of the side. The more you look at the various design elements in Star Wars, it becomes apparent that a great deal of the innovative designs for ships in the movies were inspired by surreal juxtapositions of unrelated and random objects.

Star Wars demonstrates the immense potential of a surrealist approach to inspiration: by intentionally juxtaposing random, unrelated things together, we can sometimes discover things that are completely new, which we could not possibly have come to through entirely rational methods.

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