Opinion

Don’t confuse desktop research with inspiration

There’s a wonderful world out there beyond our devices, and its a creative's job to get out there and explore it, says James Welch.

George Michael once said: “Let’s go outside”.

I think he was on to something there. The trouble is, almost without exception, the first thing that we (as in us creatives) do when we start a new project is go back to our desks. We click. We surf. We bookmark. We screenshot.

Look around you today and I guarantee that 99.9% of people are doing the same thing. Don’t get me wrong. The internet of things, social media and mobile technology have all done some massively positive things to help advance how we live today. How we learn and explore new subjects, how we connect with each other and research topics that help shed some light on the clients we work with.

All that clicking, surfing and bookmarking may well provide us with some necessary insights, I just don’t think it breeds a lot of inspiration. True inspiration. The holy grail of moments that kick you right in the face when you think you’ve nailed it. You’ve seen something that triggers an original thought. The wheels start turning and you can’t stop thinking about it. A great idea!

So what are these moments of inspiration? When do they happen? They can be anything and everything. And they can happen anywhere. A walk in the park. A chat with a mate. A visit to an art gallery. A painting your daughter gives you when she comes home from school. A tune on the radio. A seat in the front row. It’s moments like these, when you absorb the world around you, that help to inspire. And largely, its time away from your desk.

I remember when I was a student, catching a train up to Nottingham to go for my degree interview. I felt like I should prepare and read something about design (and pretend I knew what I was talking about). I took David Carson’s book, “2nd Sight: Grafik Design after the End of Print” with me, and something I read has stuck with me ever since. In the book, Karrie Jacobs writes that as designers we inhale change from the air around us and exhale it onto the page. Not only are we influenced by change but also by the blogs we read, the design sites we visit. What that does is feeds our curiosity with a constant need to compare and reference the work of our peers. We often lack the luxury of time on projects. Sometimes we do have to sit. And click. And surf.

It’s here, though, that I say SHHHHTOP!

Try and get away from your desk. Leave your mobile alone and switch it off for a second.

There’s some fantastic work out there that’s a direct result of going outside. While they might not be significant in the grand scheme of things like saving lives or solving world problems, they serve as great reminders of being inspired by the things we see, the things we feel and the things we touch.

Take Marina Willer’s project, “The Overlooked Beauty of London’s Manhole Covers” for example. The Pentagram partner and her team trawled the streets of London in search of a diverse mix of cross hatched patterns, found on industrial manhole covers. They then transformed these functional slabs of metal into beautiful fluorescent works of art that became a book and exhibition.

Source: Pentagram

Or more recently the Lost and Foundry type project (from Jason Smith, Simon Warden and Grant Parker) created in support of the homeless charity The House of St Barnabas. Here, a collection of disappearing signage from the streets of London were transformed into a series of working typefaces to help raise money for the charity.

Similar to this also is the recent identity created for the 2018 Brand New Conference in New York by UnderConsideration. For this identity, direct inspiration was found on the streets of New York itself, a proverbial “Concrete Jungle”. So, in turn, concrete became the theme. The core ingredient used (and physically made) across everything from lanyards to event literature. Genius.

The conference’s brochures were made from concrete

The point I’m trying to make is a simple but universally applied one: it’s a wonderful world that we live and work in. Sometimes it’s good to lift your head up, take the blinkers off and take a look around.

Subsequently, this raises questions for us as creatives. Do we get enough time to take part in blue sky sessions at the start of projects? As well as solid customer research that happens in any discovery phase of a project, should we factor in more time to take a walk on the wild side as part of project kick offs?

The answer is yes, we should. But I think it’s also our job as teams to simply take the time to step back. Chat more. Visit that gallery or just go for that walk. The inspiration is out there. Somewhere.

James Welch is a creative director for branding design agency Principals.

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