Philly Creative Guide

Guest Columnist

Elizabeth Maplesden

Observation = Inspiration
by Elizabeth Maplesden, 1 Dec 2006

Elizabeth Maplesden is the principal of EMdash Design, a full-service graphic design studio in the Philadelphia region. She is a member of the AIGA and the ADCP, and has won several awards. Her work has appeared in STEP inside Design and Print. Ms. Maplesden graduated from Tyler School of Art with a BFA in Graphic and Interactive Design.

All article illustrations by Elizabeth Maplesden.


Where does creative inspiration come from? The general public—and even some creative people—believes that inspiration is a mysterious process that is sudden and out of individual control. Some myths come to mind: summoning the Muse, coming down from the mountaintop, or being struck by lightning. While the moment in which a good idea emerges feels like a lightning strike, in reality, inspiration is often the result of an ongoing process and work.

In fact, if you dissect the "lightning strike moment," you'll find that a chain of thought has led you to that moment in time, where you've discovered The Greatest Idea Ever. "Discover" is really the key word here. Discovery occurs only when we have sifted through piles of information, looking for some way to connect the information about a product or service to a memorable concept that concisely and directly communicates itself. We are often researching an assignment from a creative director or a client. There is no avoiding doing this work. However, observing what happens in the world around us can often get us to that thunderstorm much faster.

Above: The lightening strike moment

Observing the world is the best way to generate new ideas at the right time. This is more than keeping up with current trends; it is a general approach to learning, and learning never stops in moving minds. If you are in a collaborative situation, the pressure to generate ideas is greater because others depend upon your contribution. A brainstorming session is the exchange of ideas by a collection of individuals. Ideas are combined, modified, and approved by a leader or others in the group. All collaborations are a variation of this process. Any brainstorming process will break down if the contributing individuals don't have anything to say.

What should you do? When a specific project is presented to you, do as much research as you can on the topic. Before you research, write down what you know and what your perceptions are of the subjects. This may be useful later when you have to present the concept to your audience.

In your day-to-day life, observe the details of anything and everything that comes your way, not just aesthetic appearance. Observe interactions and the mechanics of both objects and situations; figure out how it works, or if it can be improved. One of the worst things that can happen to a project is that the message doesn't relate to its audience—or worse, turns the intended audience away from the message. Paying attention to the audience will give important cues on how to reach others.

Above: Searching for ideas

The applications of this method to your work are endless. Observing others conversing on a bus may give you an idea for a story. Watching someone operating an ATM might give you insights into how to design an effective interface for a website. Find new interests when there is no new project looming. Read about the masters in your profession and what they have said. With the experiences you've had in the creative business, you'll have a different perspective on them than when you were in school. You will develop a foundation to support why you do what you do—and how you're different from others in your profession. Think of specific reasons why something is good or bad. Listen or watch debates where both sides of an issue are represented, and dissect the arguments presented. This may also help you strengthen your powers of persuasion when you have to collaborate or present your (or your group's) concepts. Listen to others in your group when they present an idea. Ask them constructive questions about what they think; remain open-minded about what others have to say.

Finally, record thoughts and ideas. Write or sketch them in a journal or notebook when you have an interesting observation or idea for how something can be improved. Take a picture or make a copy of something you find interesting – maybe you can use it later.

Don't feel as if you have to know everything; it is said that the true sign of intelligence is not knowing everything but knowing where to look for something. There's really no such thing as useless information! Lightning can strike more than once—if you know how to make it happen.

Print Article Brought to you by: Elizabeth Maplesden | Principal of EMdash Design

Do you have a story to tell? Email us your idea and you could be the next Philly Creative Guide Guest Columnist.

View the Guest Columnist Archive.