on inspiration

Submitted by jpamental on
Topics:  design

In going through the process of ‘re-imagining’ the (add)ventures web site I’ve been thinking a lot about inspiration lately. What is it, how to find it, why is it so fleeting? Some of the answers I’ve come across is stagnation and inversion. I think that all artists can tend to get too focused on their own work, their own medium, their own subject matter area - and forget to look out at the larger world around them. I know that when I think about web design too much it’s really easy to get jaded. Just how many ways can you put links on a page? How many ways can you organize all of the bits that need to be represented? All too often when you gather up all the content, user profiles, best practices for usability and user experience, all of the business requirements and site objectives - it can feel like a far too restrictive sandbox to play in. It’s just too easy to fall back on what you’ve done before.

That’s not necessarily going to lead to bad work. But it’s a long shot to think that it can lead to great work. 

Working in an agency now for the past year has helped me personally to rediscover design. For a number of years I was working for North Sails in a much more technical role, and was mostly on my own working from home. That kind of isolation was a huge detriment for me. I know that some are better than I at tapping into the online design community, and at getting out of the house and going to meetups. That would have helped - but it’s not there, in the room on a day-to-day basis, and it became something I craved. Being in an office now filled with creative people is a huge help. But I’ve also realized that even there, when the projects start to pile up - it can still be just as difficult to find that next great touch, new twist on navigation or just the right proportion of ornament, white space and content.

So what to do?

Look elsewhere. One of the most basic things about creativity is that it is inherently not constrained to the topic in which you are looking for it. It’s sense of humor dictates that it will generally hide in places where it knows you don’t generally go. I’ve started buying Print magazine again, and reading books about the design of doors and water faucets. I found a review of a couple books on wayfinding and environmental graphics that look fascinating. My wife gave me a book about the New York subway system’s signage that is a true gem - a photographic history of maps, station murals and mosaics and the history and origin of it all (even of the environment itself - the turnstiles, ironwork and all).

It’s true that there may still only be so many ways to address all the critical aspects in the design of a site - visual design, usability, core business objectives and producability/maintainability - but there are certainly innumerable ways to do it better. I think that one of the the things about the ‘Web 2.0-ishness’ of sites like Flikr, Twitter, Basecamp and the like is that they have evolved past the technology being the driver in design to it being the vehicle by which better design can be delivered. Technology has to become a better pencil, a better commodity - so that the budget and timeline of a project is not eaten up by recreating yet another CMS - but spent on providing those fantastic touches that help take the experience past ‘easy’ and on to ‘Apple’. Making ‘simple’ and ‘elegant’ is complex stuff - conceptually, visually and technically. But when it comes together it’s a truly beautiful thing.

I’m still not sure I know where to go, but I’m remembering now that looking out the windows while on the way can lead to discovering some truly unexpected beauty. And that is inspiring.