8 Places to Prowl for Creative Inspiration

Are you on the prowl for creative inspiration and professional development? HOW Design Live delivers everything you need to pursue a fulfilling, successful creative career—in one essential event.

Inspiration doesn’t ship FedEx—don’t count on it to absolutely, positively get there overnight.

“You can’t wait for inspiration,” said author Jack London. “You have to go after it with a club.” And a more contemporary philosopher/rapper Will i Am put it this way: “When inspiration calls, you need to answer the phone and give it directions to your house.”

In short, we can’t sit in a lotus position, hoping for creative inspiration—we need to shift into action and stretch ourselves far and wide. Sure, stellar designs and star designers can inspire, but those aren’t enough for boundless illumination; we must interact with life beyond graphic design.

“Ideas are a response to our experiences,” wrote artist Carol Diehl, “our interaction with the world.”

Here are eight examples of how creative people in varied fields engage with their environments to find inspiration:


Product designer Marc Newson goes to nature for inspiration. His Orgone Table resembles a cell in mitosis. And the modular design of his Nike shoe, Zvezdochka (named for a Russian space dog), was inspired by the structure of microscopic water creatures.

Photo from Nike.com

Photo from Nike.com

Action: Head to parks and trails, beaches and mountains, rivers and streams. Visit zoos, planetariums, nature centers. Read books and watch films about science and nature.


Manhattan restaurant Eleven Madison Park received a review from the New York Observer several years ago saying its dining room felt stodgy and needed a “bit of Miles Davis.”

Co-owners Daniel Humm and Will Guidara had no idea what that meant, so they listened to Miles Davis and researched his life. They placed a photo of Davis in the kitchen, along with a list of words describing his music to inspire themselves and the restaurant’s staff.

Action: Deep-dive into music, lyrics and processes of different singers and bands. Make lists or create art to capture characteristics, descriptions and feelings.


Much like Eleven Madison Park’s owners, singer and songwriter Sting sometimes relies on words to inspire him, coming up with a song’s title before writing music.

And, according to Fast Company, screenwriter William Goldman adopted a similar title-first strategy. When he asked his younger daughter what she wanted his next story to be about, she said, “a princess.” Asking his older daughter the same question, she said, “a bride.” He combined the two and came up with the novel and movie, The Princess Bride.

Creative Inspiration — The Princess Bride

Photo courtesy of movieposter.com

Action: Try starting your next design project with words. Make lists. Assign titles. Combine words and phrases.


Creative Inspiration — Santa Maria della Salute

Exterior of the basilica Santa Maria della Salute in Venice, Italy. (Photo from Wikipedia.)

Italian designer Massimo Vignelli was once commissioned to design tableware for Ciga, the upscale hotel chain. He was lunching in Venice with the client, who asked how the glassware design was progressing. At that moment, Vignelli was yet to even started thinking about the project.

“I looked across the Grand Canal and saw the gorgeous ribbed domes of the Church of Santa Maria Della Salute,” Vignelli later told Edible Manhattan magazine. Pointing to the dome, he said to his client, “It looks just like that dome, but upside down.”

His crunch inspiration paid off. Ciga loved the design – and the Metropolitan Museum of Art has since reissued several pieces of the glassware.

Action: Stop and study buildings you pass by every day. Take architectural tours of your hometown and in in cities you visit. Read up on architects and their work.


When still an unknown actor and playwright, Dan Groggin received a nun’s habit as a gag gift. Not long afterwards, another friend gave him a mannequin. Groggin dressed the mannequin in the nun’s habit and stationed it around his New York apartment.

Hearing visitors laugh at the mannequin, Groggin was inspired to write “Nunsense,” a Broadway-bound play filled with silly songs and skits. According to the Wall Street Journal, the play and its sequels earned Groggin more than $7 million.

Action: Have fun. Be silly. And every so often harvest something from your silliness.


When designing the Sydney Opera House, Danish architect Jorn Utzon remembered stylish yachts in his father’s Denmark shipyard. Curves of the hulls Utzon had admired in that shipyard inspired the shells that make up the Opera House’s iconic roof.

Sydney Opera House — Creative Inspiration

Photo by Bjarte Sorensen

Shakespeare also looked to his past for inspiration. His father made gloves, and several references to leather show up in Shakespeare’s plays. Wool was also used in his father’s work, and Shakespeare’s characters occasionally speak of the wool trade.

Action: Think back to the occupations and pastimes of your parents, grandparents and other relatives. What fascinated you? What sparked your imagination? What can you pull into present projects?

Ordinary objects

Inspirability: Creative Inspiration

It’s hard for graphic designers to stay inspired when they’re constantly working to deadlines. Inspirability gives you a fresh look at how to keep those creative fires burning in the real world through interviews with 40 design luminaries.

In the documentary “Sketches of Frank Gehry,” the famous American architect is asked where he finds inspiration. “Look in that trash can,” said Gehry, “and see the shapes of the paper in there and the spaces. You can find inspiration anywhere.”

Event producer David Stark frequently uses everyday objects in his creations, according to the Wall Street Journal. For an event at Sundance Institute, he made centerpieces out of pleated sheets constructed from film screenplays. And he used Benjamin Moore paint strips to create centerpieces for an event at Tate museum.

Action: Look at those little things around you that ignore most days. What’s on your shelves? In your kitchen? Around your work space? What deserves credit lines in your designs?

The work itself

“Just get to work,” said artist Chuck Close. “Something will occur to you and something else will occur to you and something else that you reject will push you in another direction.”

Action: Void of inspiration for the project sitting in front of you? Plunge ahead, promising yourself to keep going until you find a scintilla of stimulation, a flicker of inspiration that will eventually lead you toward creative triumph.

Sam Harrison is a popular speaker and author on creativity-related topics and presentation skills. He has spoken at nine HOW Design Conferences and will present at HOW Design Live in Chicago in May. His books include IdeaSpotting: How to find your next great idea, IdeaSelling: Successfully pitch your creative ideas to bosses, clients and other decision makers and Zing!: Five steps and 101 tips for creativity on command. Find him at www.zingzone.com

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