The Mess + The Magic of Shared Inspiration

Posted inDesign Theory

Consider the lifespan of an instance of inspiration. In terms of how or where it starts, we have an abundance of depictions to choose from:

The sudden appearance of a lightbulb above a person’s head in a comic signals that inspiration occurs in the mind, like a moment of epiphany.

Idioms such as ‘go with your gut’ paint inspiration as a fleeting gastrointestinal impulse, much more visceral than cerebral in its inception.

Some social scientists see inspiration as instinctual, a psychosomatic response to environmental stimuli and product of the innate checks and balances in nature vs. nurture.

To a pulmonologist, the term inspiration would literally refer to the act of inhaling so as to fill the lungs with air.

A monk once told me that inspiration stems from the divine, and thus marks a rapturous and spiritual occasion.

From epiphany, to divinity, to impulse, this wide range of attributional metaphors reflect how difficult it is to neatly place the experience of inspiration into a box.

Nonetheless, all of these depictions agree on two things:

  1. That inspiration begins in a moment, with some sort of spark
  2. That inspiration is initially a personal experience 

The spark is just the starting place, and from that moment on, inspiration can beget a seemingly infinite number of twists and turns, actions and inactions, approaches and solutions. For creatives within a stereotypical academic or corporate setting, the arc from start to finish might look something like this: 

  • *You receive an assignment. [this step optional]
  • You go off and get inspired… [cue lightbulb moment]
  • You act on that initial spark and begin to make something.
  • You exercise craft, pull in new ideas, and experience happy accidents, all while molding and growing the inspiration. 
  • You ride the iterative process of making in pursuit of an ultimate expression.
  • Along the way, you shape that initial spark— from a place where it is fleeting, vibrating, and undefined— to a place where it is malleable, then practical, then tangible.
  • By the time you’ve executed an idea, the initial spark of inspiration is extinguished, and in its place stands an artifact that you can present as your own creation— one that might go on to inspire others.

In the arc described above, we make the leap from personal to interpersonal in the final step—at a stage when it is no longer a spark of inspiration, but rather a refined and tangible manifestation of the creative process.

Inspiration can be shared much sooner, but that’s easier said than done. First, it’s a communications challenge— less individual time spent drafting means less exchangeable material with which to get our ideas across. Sharing our inspiration early on can also require more vulnerability. The more purely epiphanic, gut-driven, and instinctual the spark, the more turbulent or even chaotic it might feel to try and express it.

However, with the right teammates and partnerships, we’ve found that sharing inspiration in an unrefined and turbulent state has merit. What is normal for my colleague Clint might have a higher likelihood of being inspiring for me, and vice versa, so unstructured dialogue early on in the process can hold exponential creative potential. We also gain an initial sounding board from someone we respect that can validate, amplify, or redirect our spark. The more we practice sharing our inspiration early, the more we might foster psychological safety and grow confidence in what our instincts tell us. We receive more immediate feedback on the gaps in our initial assessments, and after a while, we may find that we are less likely to shut down a good idea preemptively. 

In short, sharing inspiration early and often can be messy, but also magical. The ripple effects are much greater when combined— less like a lightbulb, and more like a match.

Clint and Kelsy are colleagues at SYPartners, a consultancy where designers and strategists work closely with leaders to guide their organizations through times of transformation. Clint is a typography addict, aspiring furniture maker, and BBQ enthusiast who has helped teach design at ArtCenter College of Design in Los Angeles. Kelsy is a designer turned strategist, synth musician, and Dungeons & Dragons enthusiast who has helped to teach brand strategy at the School of Visual Arts in New York City.