This post is Part 2 in a series on the importance of staying inspired. Click here to read Part 1!
In Part 1 of this post, I talked about one of my biggest pet peeves, the copycat problem. I believe that the reason every field is so overrun with copycats is that most of us have never learned how to properly take in inspiration.
Taking in inspiration is the key to creative energy, in much the same that taking in food is essential for life.
But just like with food, the creative energy you put out is in direct proportion to the kinds of inspiration you take in. Take in a diverse and nutrient rich blend of influences and it becomes easier to create a unique and distinctive body of work. Fail to do so, and the result is mediocre products that look like so much of what is already in the marketplace. Garbage in, garbage out.
Inspiration can, and should, look different for all of us. But if you’re an artist, maker, or product designer, I think a healthy diet of inspiration takes into account two key elements – a visual education plus an appreciation for things.
What I mean by this is that if you make things (or art) and especially if you’re hoping to sell them, it’s important to spend a lot of time just looking (that’s a visual education) and time surrounded by objects (that’s an appreciation for things). Just like it’s hard to trust an author who doesn’t like to read, it’s difficult for me to take an artist or maker seriously when they don’t have a healthy appreciation for art, design, craft, and objects.
But I also appreciate that we’re all really busy. You’re trying to run your business. You’ve got a family. Friends. Other commitments. Maybe even a day job. And with all that going on, it can be easy to let inspiration fall by the wayside.
So if it’s been a while since you’ve flexed your inspiration muscles, here are 7 ideas that you can use to stay inspired.
These don’t all have to be daily (or even weekly) activities, but you should make it a point to take in regular inspiration before you start feeling creatively drained. (Bonus for parents: these are all things you can do with kids! I grew up going to museums, and it’s one of the main reasons I have such a strong commitment to seeking out inspiration as an adult!)
1. Look for inspiration beyond your category.
If you pay attention to only one piece of advice in this post, make it this one. The reason we have a copycat problem is because when most people head off in search of inspiration to design something new, they start with their own product category. They head to Pinterest and search for the thing it is they’re trying to make. This is the opposite of bringing in healthy inspiration.
What I believe makes my jewelry distinctive is that I’m inspired by a range of sources, from floral patterned textiles to decorative ironwork to architectural ornamentation to fashion and interior design. So when I need a shot of inspiration, I’ll turn to any of those sources. True, I’m also inspired by other jewelry. But because I spend a majority of my time looking at resources outside my category, I’m able to create jewelry that is distinct from a lot of what is in the marketplace.
2. Put down your phone.
Ditto for your tablet and computer. Yes, the Internet is a wealth of information, and it’s great for grabbing inspiration in a pinch, but if your only source of inspiration comes from a screen, you’re missing out in so many ways.
First, whether you’re searching on Google, Pinterest, or just hanging out on Facebook, what you see is controlled by an algorithm. Yes, in the case of Pinterest and Facebook, that algorithm is influenced by what you’ve liked and looked at in the past, but what you’re seeing is still outside of your control. That means you’re never fully in charge of the discovery process, which is so critical for taking in a range of inspiration that’s different from what everyone else is seeing.
Second, when you only seek out inspiration on a screen, you’re losing all sense of space and scale, which is a problem if you’re creating three-dimensional work for the real world. (And I would add that I consider both paintings and prints three-dimensional as well.) There’s something very real that’s lost when you’re only taking in inspiration through similarly sized flat boxes.
And finally, putting down your phone opens you up to pay attention to the world around you. And that’s really what taking in inspiration is all about. It’s about noticing. When I went to India last year, any time I was in a rickshaw or car, I made it a point to put away my phone (and my camera) and just look at what was happening around me. The result was that I spotted more details. Since returning, I’ve applied that same principle to my every day life. Any time I’m a passenger, I keep my phone in my bag and spend my time really looking at the world around me.
3. Buy books.
I am one of those people that firmly believes that books should never replace screens. Yes, you’re still compressing a three-dimensional world down to two dimensions, but books have a tactile quality and a physicality that you can never get on a screen. Books also force you to focus on really looking and taking in inspiration. There are no notifications popping up, asking for you to go look at something else.
I happen to be a little book obsessed, but if you’re not, that’s ok. You don’t have to buy a lot, and you don’t have to even like reading, to make books a core part of your inspiration process. Buy a few beautiful coffee table books (and make sure at least a couple of them are outside your field) and make it a point to flip through them on a regular basis.
Now I realize (from personal experience) that buying books can get expensive. But even if you’re on a budget, you can still make books part of your creative process. Join your local library. Search out inexpensive books at thrift stores, yard sales, and even that discount section at your local big box bookstore. Buy used books online. Ask for books for gifts.
Nutrition experts are quick to point out that if you’re fridge is full of fruits and vegetables, you’re much more likely to make healthy food choices. The same is true for seeking out high quality inspiration. When you fill your studio or workspace with books, it becomes easy to fuel your creative process on a regular basis.
4. Go to museums.
I am a museum junkie. In fact, I’ve been known to travel the world just to go to a good museum. (And I make sure I go to museums wherever I travel.) There’s something about looking at art and objects in real life, often in an amazing architectural space, that literally rejuvenates my soul.
I don’t care where you live, or whether or not you travel, museums are everywhere. I live in a tiny town, and I’ve seen world class exhibitions at museums that were less than an hour drive away. Even if you can’t get to a museum, you’ll often find that your local college probably has a small art gallery with rotating exhibitions. Once you start to seek out seeing art and craft in real life, you’ll find there’s more opportunities than you might think.
And it doesn’t have to be an art museum, if that’s not really your thing. Science museums, nature centers, history museums, aquariums, even zoos – they can all feed your creative mind.
The secret with any type of museum isn’t to try and take in everything at once. Instead, start with one small area that interests you, and focus in on the art or objects that speak to you. You don’t have to look at everything and you certainly don’t have to read every product description. When I walk a museum, I have a scan and focus mentality. I’ll walk a space quickly until something catches my eye, and then I might spend several minutes just looking at that one piece. Then, I’ll set off and scan again until something catches my eye. Most museums are so large that you’ll never see everything in one trip anyway, so don’t waste precious time looking at things that don’t excite you.
5. Go shopping.
Some of you are probably not even reading this anymore, because you’re already out the door, calling to your spouse, “Megan just told me to go shopping.”
But for others, I can already see the resistance forming. (Because while I love shopping, I also happen to be married to an introvert who would pretty much rather do anything else in the world than go shopping.) First of all, you don’t have to buy anything. Leave your wallet in the car if it helps. Secondly, if you don’t like people, go on a weekday. (Ah, the joys of being self-employed.) Instead of thinking as a store as a soul-crushing place where you have to make decisions and deal with people, think of a store as a museum where you get to touch things.
Spending time in stores is essential if you’re trying to sell what you make. It helps you see how products are merchandised. It helps you spot trends. It lets you observe how people interact with products for sale. And, if you pick the right stores, it can give you a burst of high quality inspiration.
Now, I get that for some of us, finding good shopping for creative fuel can be tricky. Ideally, we’d all be able to head out to amazing independent boutiques selling fantastic products. But if you live in an area that’s anything like where I live, those place are hard to come buy. So I go to Target, because at least I get a taste of good design and interesting merchandising. You take what you can get.
One other thing: When you go shopping, play by idea #1 and step outside your category. When I go shopping, I almost never look at jewelry. I look at pretty much everything else. Sure, seeing how a great boutique merchandises products like yours can be incredibly useful. But you’ll get more creative ideas by looking at products and displays from other categories.
6. Find your own sources of inspiration.
Books, museums, and stores are all huge sources of inspiration for me, and if you’re trying to sell art or products, they are a great way to hone your visual skills, even if (especially if) they aren’t places you usually turn to for inspiration. But they don’t have to be the only places you turn to.
Part of the care and feeding of your creative process should be finding your own sources of inspiration, and here’s the key, spending time really looking in those places. I know plenty of artists who are inspired by nature. If that’s you, then you need to make it a point to really get out and pay attention to nature. Look at little details. Find unexpected vantage points. Challenge yourself to put away your camera or phone and just notice things.
The same is true for whatever inspires you, from architecture to travel to animals to movies. Pay attention to what sparks your creativity, and make it a regular habit to explore more!
7. Keep a list of the places and things that inspire you.
I realize that this is such a simple step, but just having that list can make it easier to make taking in inspiration a priority when you’re busy or stressed. That way, when you’re stuck for inspiration, you’ve got a handy cheat sheet of the places you can go or the books you can look at to help kickstart your creative process.
And after you’ve done all those things, then you can go on Pinterest!
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Wondering how to turn all of this inspiration into a unique and distinctive product line? Check out my upcoming class on Creative Live, Product Line Strategy: Expand Your Offerings!