Where do new ideas come from? The science and mythology surrounding inspiration
As creatives, we’re constantly on the hunt for inspiration and live in fear that it will desert us for good. But how much do we truly understand about this elusive phenomenon?
In this first article of Thread of Inspiration, our new series in partnership with Pinterest, we go in search of where new ideas really come from. Speaking to a handful of artists and designers, as well as a the CEO of Neuro-Insight, we debunk the myth that inspiration simply strikes us like a bolt of magic lightning and gather some key insights for creatives of all stripes.
As part of this partnership, throughout 2020 we’ll be continuing to explore the idea that inspiration can come from unexpected places, by commissioning a host of creatives to produce artworks. Beginning in March and continuing every other month, a new creative will be introduced, inspired by the artist who came before them in the chain. Stay tuned for news of that first commission in the coming weeks.
It’s a rare thing to spend every working day of your life doing something and not eventually find it boring. Even your absolute favourite song or film, if played repeatedly throughout the hours from nine to five, is sure to do your head in. Yet I would say there’s a fair case to argue that creativity – and specifically creative work – is an act that never ceases to keep creative people sustained.
The reason for this, I believe, is that creative working is an impossible task to get right, to finish, begin again, and repeat. It’s impossible because inspiration, the very thing we all need to kickstart any creative work, is so intangible. Sometimes it feels like literal sorcery: you search for it, practice it, as many Medium articles put it, attempt to “unlock” it – and most of the time it just doesn’t reveal itself. Of course we can’t get bored of it. How could we?! We actually have no idea what the hell it is and where it comes from.
Over the years, the concept of finding inspiration has stumped many a creative and even a scientist or two. For instance, an article examining “Why Inspiration Matters” by the Harvard Business Review, references psychologists Todd M. Thrash and Andrew J. Elliot, who identified three specific qualities of inspiration. The first is “evocation” – the moment the spark of an idea reveals itself spontaneously. Next comes a creative “transcendence”, when this unintended thought begins to mould into a possible outcome. Finally comes “approach motivation”, the act of attempting to bring the concept to life. That makes sense: idea pops into your head, you figure out if it’s actually possible, then attempt to execute it. But still this feels idealistic, so it’s time to dispel some of the mystery around this most mysterious aspect of the creative process.
“Every film I’ve made has always seemed to be a mixture of odd inspirations in my mind, jumbled together”Peter Millard
One creative who does appear to be able to tap into brilliant, bizarre ideas on an unusually regular basis is animator Peter Millard. “Every film I’ve made has always seemed to be a mixture of odd inspirations in my mind, jumbled together,” Peter tells us. “From watching Hulk Hogan’s incredible acting in the family blockbuster Suburban Commando and the hit TV show Thunder in Paradise, or just dancing at Vienna Shorts festival and the DJ playing Lay All Your Love On Me by Abba to one of the happiest, loved-up dance-floor reactions I’ve ever seen.”
A more specific piece of unlikely inspiration developed into Peter’s film Pooh bear Winnie the Pooh bear, the initial spark for which stemmed from a time “when I couldn’t stop listening to the song from The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh in 2016,” he explains. “I even downloaded it onto my MP3 player… Basically everywhere I was, the song was never far from my ears.” This obsession then coincided with Peter being stirred on to “make an ‘animation’ that was only one frame, and attempt to get into some festivals,” he recalls. “The two bits of the puzzle combined… I still can’t believe it got into quite a few screenings, much to the annoyance of the entire animation and short film community, and anyone who encountered it, I’d imagine.”
Peter’s approach demonstrates two examples of sourcing inspiration you may know well. In the case of Winnie the Pooh, Peter’s slight obsession with the song shows how sometimes a creative idea, although not fully formed, will stick in your head until it finds its home. The second is simply a willingness to be open-minded on when inspiration may strike. Many a critic may not see the value in Hulk Hogan’s acting as visual stimulus, or be relaxed enough to realise that dancing to Abba may just be what you need.
“I can even find inspiration through shopping.”Daniel Gebhart de Koekkoek
This openness also allows unique forms of inspiration to present themselves, a nugget that only your interests and personality could ever produce. A further creative whose references are uniquely vast – despite her work having a cohesive stylistic approach – is Royal College of Art graduate and Shanghai-born illustrator, Inkee Wang. Within her illustrations, which range from spots for The New York Times to her own comics, the most unlikely source of inspiration has been PUBG, otherwise known as Playerunknown Battlegrounds.
An online shooter game the illustrator had previously never played, the experience of navigating PUBG’s “realistic scene settings” made Inkee feel both “very nervous and excited” she tells us. “At the same time it is also a social game and I could communicate with many strangers through the game.” Presented with a never-before-experienced sensation, it was this feeling the illustrator then distilled into a comic, Special K, building the narrative of a star gamer who gets caught cheating.
Similarly odd but an equally valuable source of inspiration comes from Daniel Gebhart de Koekkoek, a photographer whose projects include calendars of floating Afghan hounds and flying cats. “I don’t know why, but I love to stroll through local grocery and hardware stores whenever I travel,” says Daniel, when we ask him for his most left-field source of inspiration. “Lately I started a project with mysterious pleasure toys after scrolling through an online shopping channel. So, for me, I can even find inspiration through shopping.”
There’s a similar example that comes to mind about an old piece of It’s Nice That work. A few years ago, our then art director Connor Campbell had a fondness for the signage of Andu – an Ethiopian restaurant up in Dalston – which then manifested itself in The Graduates 2018 typographic output. Working with this approach is also mutually beneficial, when it comes to second guessing yourself on whether another creative may have been “inspired” by your work, too. We’ve seen visual references to Connor’s work for The Graduates pop up in far-flung places, few of which we believe have ever visited Andu for its vegetarian lunch deal.
In their varying approaches and inspirational sources, Peter, Inkee and Daniel each display an attitude which welcomes possible inspiration – and it, in turn, hits. But when it comes to actually acclimatising your brain to being more readily available to generate ideas, Shazia Ginai, the CEO of Neuro-Insight (a “neuromarketing and neuroanalytics company”) has a few fascinating insights. She understands how our brains are actually piecing together inspirational thoughts.
In this context, Shazia describes, our brains have two main systems. The first is an intrinsic default network where possible creativity is housed, but it’s swarming around chaotically. It’s here that ideas are beginning to fuse together, utilising pre-existing elements you’ve seen or heard, to be pieced together by your brain making connections. Shazia admits that “there is no recipe for being open to inspiration.” Our brains, after all, only form ideas from what’s based inside them, together through a series of “combining or recombining things that exist”.
What you can do, however, is “broaden horizons and look outside your own life context,” in order for your brain to have a plethora of references to pull from. “That’s why you often find really interesting people, right at the top of their field, are often really well-travelled,” Shazia says. If destination hopping isn't an option the internet too offers a fertile environment in which to source ideas. Platforms such as Pinterest, for example, house thousands of visually rich images to explore and grow your creation network digitally through moodboards. “Pinterest is actually a really nice analogy,” says Shazia on this point, “you’re taking a bunch of ideas that exist and then creating something.”
“It’s really interesting, we have a filter essentially inside of us.”Shazia Ginai
But before this possible idea can be formed, our brain has to process it through the second network housed inside our heads – the judgement network – “and this is really interesting for creativity,” continues Shazia. Part of the frontal cortical region of our brain, the aptly named judgement network assesses “whether an idea is good enough, and all of this is happening in our subconscious, before we even know it exists,” she says. “This is a network inside your brain that basically decides whether or not the idea is worth putting into the conscious realm. It’s really interesting, we have a filter essentially inside of us.”
Consequently, Shazia suggests that a possible way to engage your brain into a more inspirational state is by “decreasing the activity of the judgement network” – meaning all those ideas stacked inside the creation network of your brain are able to worm their way through the filter. To do this, Shazia suggests that first creatives should place themselves “in an environment that is positive,” she says. “We all know that mind state impacts us so heavily, but a positive mindset can decrease the judgemental network.” A possible and much-tested example of this would be to brainstorm and simply say concepts out loud, “but in a non-judgemental environment where your brain will feel it can allow ideas through.”
“There are some ways in which you can almost help yourself generate a path for more creativity.”Shazia Ginai
Interestingly, Shazia suggests that another possible way to decrease the judgment network is to go “into a state of relaxation, or a state of low arousal”. This reasoning also explains why a few years ago businesses were more focused on running workshops and exercises to generate ideas, “and now people are like, ‘Let’s meditate.’”
In a personal context, however, say if you’re a freelance creative, Shazia suggests you can also relax this judgement filter by enforcing drowsiness, “and what I mean by that is a non-optimal time of day.” For example, if you know you’re a morning person, “then do your creative thinking in the evening because your judgement network will be less switched on,” she says. “It feels really counterintuitive to me, but what I do find – I hate mornings – is that some of my best ideas will come when I’m just about waking up, when I’m in the shower, or when I’m on my commute and getting to my optimal point,” she explains. “What you’re trying to do is relax your judgement network because that will get the filter down and those creative ideas to come out.”
Finally, in a last attempt to find out whether inspiration is just an element which strikes an unknowing creative, we ask Shazia if she believes it’s something in our control. “I know it’s not the answer you’re looking for, but it’s half and half,” she says. In her experience, she says, “Yes, there are some people who are more open to inspiration, but I think that when it comes to whether it’s a thing that just happens to a person, there are some ways in which you can almost help yourself generate a path for more creativity.”
Relating back to the creative and judgement networks that our ideas are flitting around, Shazia concludes that inspiration is often dependent on “how you take in the world’s context”. In this sense, a creative mind isn’t formed naturally, and creativity has to be cultivated, maintained and topped up regularly for inspiration to take hold – you have to work at it like any other creative task. “One of the things research has shown is that our brains create ideas through combining information that exists within them. It’s almost like you’ve got to keep filling up the top of the funnel, and pull on those levers of the creation and judgement networks to enable conscious inspiration – the eureka moment.”
About the Author
Lucy (she/her) joined It’s Nice That as a staff writer in July 2016 after graduating from Chelsea College of Art. In January 2019 she was made deputy editor and in November 2021, became a senior editor predominantly working on It’s Nice That's partnerships. Feel free to get in contact with Lucy about creative projects for the site or potential partnerships.