Finding Creative Inspiration: 7 Tips to Keep Your Work Fresh

fresh-ideas-inspiration2Working in-house, you’re charged with serving up the same messages to the same audience using the same ingredients. These 7 tips will help you cook up something fresh.

If you’re an in-house creative, you have a lot in your favor: You’re an expert in your organization’s products and mission. You’re surrounded by colleagues working toward the same goal. And you’ve typically got more job stability than design professionals who freelance or work in agencies. But there’s one potential problem that’s unique to your world: You have to find ways to stay fresh while using the same fonts, colors and logo to share the same message with the same audience. How do you keep it interesting?

“If you had told me that I’d be using the same two fonts for almost 10 years, I’d have probably laughed out loud,” says Melissa Rosen, art director at Metro Los Angeles, the county’s public transportation agency. “At this point, Scala is so engrained in my mind, I could kern it in my sleep. But it’s really not an issue. I credit our designers and our fresh influx of well-chosen interns who always bring a lot of new ideas to the table.” But how can you continue to generate new ideas, like Metro Los Angeles’ designers and interns?

Read on for seven tips to keep your design work fresh and innovative.

1. Think small.

Already feeling confined by limitations on fonts, colors and other brand-book guidelines? Take it even further. Limit yourself to one color, use only type or stick to black-and-white photographs. Artists place limitations on themselves all the time, from haiku to Holga cameras. Those limitations can force you to think differently and, paradoxically, often expand your thinking to create a new iteration of a project.

Last fall, I stumbled on the work of New York photographer Michael Falco, who uses old-school pinhole cameras to capture Civil War reenactments in stunning ways that I had never seen. As the editor of National Parks magazine, I’m always looking for new ways to illustrate stories about Civil War battlefields, beyond black-and-white portraits of soldiers, paintings from the 1800s and the old stand-by — rows of cannons at sunrise. I reached out to Falco for a Q&A, and learned that after years of averaging more than 10,000 images a week with a digital camera, he was thrilled to finally slow down and explore his art in a new way. To blend in with the reenactors more easily, he became one himself, which allowed access to images that he never would have captured otherwise.

Create your own limitations. Then dive into them, and you’ll discover new creative solutions.

2. Share the workload.

“It’s hard to stay inspired when you’re covering the same topics every year,” says Dian Holton, art director at AARP The Magazine, which devotes a lot of ink to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and celebrity profiles. “One of my favorite things to do is fi nd an emerging artist and ask them to do something different for us. A few years back, I came across the awesome work of Erika Iris Simmons, an artist who creates images using old cassette tapes and VHS tapes. I shared her site with my boss, who eventually used her for a Dylan portrait he was working on. And later on, I asked her if she could come up with a creative portrait of Billie Jean King using a tennis ball and a racket.” The result is much more eye-catching than yet another photograph. In fact, after the issue went to press, Holton tweeted the image and the behind-the-scenes process to King, who retweeted the link to her thousands of followers.

3. Talk to strangers.

One big challenge for designers, and anyone in the communications field, is that we can only pack so much knowledge into one brain. And that can mean missing out on dozens of opportunities to present a message in an innovative way. “As designers and creatives, we don’t know it all,” Holton says. “You can’t possibly be an expert on every subject, but you can talk to people who are. Sometimes it’s as simple as reaching out to people from another demographic—a different race, religion or age—and getting their insights on how to tell a story visually or to simply gain a new perspective.” You’d be surprised how many people would love to talk about their experiences and sift through some of your visual concepts to find a keeper.

4. Zig. And then zag.


An Illustrated Journey: Inspiration From the Private Art Journals of Traveling Artists, Illustrators and Designers

If you always work with photographers, try an illustrator. Or vice versa. If your annual report has always been printed, consider going digital or creating a video or a series of infographics. Switching it up will take you out of your comfort zone, but that’s where some of the best work happens. And if your audience is relatively static over time, it’ll wake them up, too. Two years ago, I became fascinated with urban sketching and travel journals after reading books by Danny Gregory and Gabriel Campanario (Illustrated Journey). So I pitched the idea of an entire magazine article as an illustrated travel journal. Rather than pair a writer and a photographer together, as we’d done for years, we sent illustrator Walt Taylor to wander along the Natchez Trace Parkway in Mississippi with his pen and watercolors. The sketchbook approach definitely presented some challenges: We simply couldn’t reprint every page of the artist’s journal unedited—we had to select our favorite images and have the artist re-create the relevant notes in the margins. But the change of pace was refreshing, and the resulting product, “Sketching the Natchez Trace,” earned the magazine a FOLIO award and plenty of praise from readers.

5. Color outside the lines.

Another way to get a little more creative in your craft is to produce the work that the client expects, then generate something they would never anticipate. Melissa Rosen along with Tiffany Huang, one of the designers at Metro Los Angeles, were given the task of updating a previous campaign—an app that told riders when the next bus would arrive. The client had gone back to the original brief and simply added “and rail” to include train arrivals.

Rather than make a minor tweak to the old campaign, the two aimed for something more. “Early on, we were focusing on a series of text messages on the phone, and the scene itself was secondary, but there was something about the idea of a diner or coffee shop that we liked,” Rosen says. “Throughout the design process, we slowly moved away from the actual product, Nextrip, and focused on the situation that riders could continue to enjoy because they wouldn’t have to spend extra minutes standing at a bus stop, wondering when their next bus would arrive.”

The brainstorming session involved talk of food, cappuccino art and chili fries, but they fi nally settled on letting the scene speak for itself: a hot dog with a hand-lettered message written in ketchup. When it came time to unveil their concepts, they knew the hot dog was a long shot, but it turned out to be the client’s favorite, and the ads started appearing throughout the transit system in August.

6. Walk in their shoes.

Huang goes out of her way to ride LA’s public transit system every day of the work week, taking photos to aid in idea development and for use in early design comps. Danielle Kunitz, multidisciplinary art director and designer at the Newseum in Washington, DC, often leaves her office and wanders down to the galleries to slip into a theater and observe visitors while they sit and view something that she’s created. “A film I worked on for months feels much less powerful after I’ve viewed it hundreds of times during its creation, to the point that I can recite it word-for-word,” Kunitz says. “It’s really energizing to get a renewed perspective and appreciation for what works and what doesn’t work. It also can be a reminder of moments when I should have pushed myself even harder to be unconventional.”

While wandering through exhibits with a strong emotional component, like 9/11 or the Berlin Wall, Kunitz is reminded how important it is for her to find that emotional hook to engage the audience. “You can’t just pound people with facts and details,” she says. “You have to make them care about a subject.”

7. Get a room.

Six brains are better than one, so get in a room and brainstorm with other creatives, including people who may not share your familiarity with the work. “We hold a lot of really fun brainstorming sessions,” says Michele Moore, senior graphic designer at Metro Los Angeles. “Our creative director, Michael Lejeune, is great about sharing the load when it comes to new ideas, so we’ll all get in a conference room full of books and artifacts and a cork board, and just riff off each other. We all get along so well that we’re not afraid to put a silly concept [on the table] and see if we can get something out of it.” Their meeting room is usually filled with designers, interns and photographers.

Clients aren’t generally invited until the pitch meetings—based on the fear that clients may kill off an idea before it’s been developed. As a result of some of those brainstorm sessions, photographer David Zaitz shot photographs of a dog poking his head out of a bus window and a man in a jet pack zooming over traffic, both of which appeared in popular ad campaigns.

This article was originally featured in the January 2014 in-house issue of HOW Magazine. Order the latest issue of HOW here.