Design View | Articles and opinion on design professionalism, technique and culture by Andy Rutledge

On Inspiration

July 20, 2009

It is a simple fact that a very few times in my life I’ve done things that I simply can’t do. After those moments of superability or superconsciousness, which I’m incapable repeating, I knew what it was to be truly inspired. Those instances of inspiration were momentary and spectacular, and they were nothing akin to the mundane, ego-flooded, fetish-fueled, shallow examples of so-called inspiration I’ve often enjoyed when I immerse myself in something I like and as a result find some pleasurable will to accomplish what I’m otherwise just supposed to.

In fact, pleasure—or any other self-conscious sensation—is entirely exclusive of real inspiration. Real inspiration strikes only when we have entirely forgotten our self. It comes only when we allow it to penetrate the fog of our self-consciousness and armor of our ego. In my experience there has been no exception to this fact, which is why I’ve so seldom been inspired. It makes no sense to go looking for it. Since looking for inspiration never reveals the desired results, by repeatedly going in search of it we demonstrate only our mild insanity.

Talking a good game

When it comes to inspiration, we designers can be excruciatingly expert at hyperbole. We cite inspiration regularly, but despite our many, repetitive, flippant claims we seldom actually meet with it. What we’re talking about in almost every case is nothing more than simple motivation. But that sounds too mundane for many of us, so we habitually work to spin the straw of motivation into gold. From my observations most of us are in this sad habit of cheapening language in order to aggrandize the simple act of doing our jobs; item no. 14 on the list of reasons why most people can’t stand designers. Too often marked with insecurity, we are compelled to inflate our simple work.

Doing professional work shouldn’t require that we constantly invoke some supernatural explanation for the source of our craft. We’re not sorcerers, for Pete’s sake. We’re just designers. Design is art and craft and skill and concept and execution …fueled by paying attention to things other people ignore or cannot grasp. We don’t have to imply that we graduated from Hogwart’s in order to explain what we produce. And if we’re any good, we don’t require inspiration either.

Truly, inspiration is entirely unnecessary in our work. Oh, it does a doozy on those rare occasions, but if we staked our livelihoods and our clients’ fortunes on the condition of our being truly inspired, we would all of us go bankrupt. Too often, though, we are so obtuse as to require some tangible motivation in order to accomplish even the most basic components of our craft. How ridiculous! Imagine if your eye surgeon required special motivation in order to do a good job on your surgery. In this regard, it is hard not to marvel at what a sad and contemptible rabble we designers sometimes are.

Whence inspiration?

So what is inspiration and where does it come from? Well, the antonym of inspiration is of course expiration. To expire is to end. It is the end of term or end of life. This alone makes it clear that to be inspired is to receive new life; life beyond what we already possess. This new life brings extraordinary ability, allowing us to do things we otherwise simply cannot do. So there is nothing mundane or worldly about inspiration. By definition, it is not something we already possess and might willfully tap into in our moment of need. It is something that comes most often unbidden and fills us with something beyond “us.” And what is beyond us?

It is not my main purpose here to challenge your philosophy, but there is an elephant in the middle of the room of this examination: divinity. If past response is any indication (and much to my great sadness), many of you will surely gnash your teeth and spit in derision of this fact, but the term “divine inspiration” is entirely redundant. There is no inspiration short of the divine. When you consider the fact that inspiration is something beyond ourselves breathed into us, or that we breathe in (inspire) or otherwise become filled with, and so find the ability to do what we otherwise cannot do, certain realities stare us full in the face. Unblinking. This would seem to make clear how shallow are our most common references to inspiration.

These indulgences are not necessarily a waste of time, but they certainly are if we’re so deluded as to expect or even hope for what they would deign to promise.

Despite the realities and context of actual inspiration, our designer culture habitually applies the terms “inspiration” (or “inspired”) as a shibboleth for anything deemed worthwhile. Our online culture is choked to the gills with “sources of inspiration,” as if such a thing could live on a website. Hundreds of websites—nearly all of them nothing more than galleries of design or decoration—clamor for our attention and promise that ever-elusive inspiration. And of course they deliver bubkis.

I agree that admiring excellent design work is an enjoyable indulgence, and in this measure these galleries serve a purpose. It’s just that there can be no inspirational result from doing so. Things cannot offer us real inspiration. We may find a dopamine fix or an endorphin rush when we indulge our preference for pleasurable or comfortable experiences, but as this behavior is entirely self-referential and self-satisfying, we’re already on the wrong track in these cases. These indulgences are not necessarily a waste of time, but they certainly are if we’re so deluded as to expect or even hope for what they would deign to promise. It’s really no big deal, right? We lie to ourselves all the time. There’s no harm in participating in a lie when all of us know what’s really going on, but the hypocrisy tends to chafe after a while. Don’t you think?

* * *

Well then, how might we meet with inspiration? My best answer is, “I have no idea.” I mentioned at the start of this essay that I have been filled with inspiration on a very few occasions, but I confess that none of them came in the context of design. Yes, one might accurately say then that none of my design work is inspired. On the contrary, it is simply the result of doing my job and applying my skills in the best way I know how; sometimes motivated, sometimes not. And that is not cause for disappointment. Inspiration is not a requirement, after all. It is strictly a bonus. Motivation, too, is not a requirement. We have a job to do. We’d better damn well do it.

Sometimes I see an example of work from another designer and get the impression that he or she was truly inspired to produce such a result. It is most likely, though, that this is just my ego begging for misdirection from the fact that my own work might pale in comparison. Truly, are not many of our profession’s common mechanisms a result of or response to egos seeking gratification or justification? Of course they are. The purported requirement that we be inspired or at least motivated in order to do our job is not the least of these. And perhaps the silliest.

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