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Blog

3 Inspiration Tips for Designers

Aug 08 2016

On a recent research trip in Asia, I found myself naked in a spa, being vigorously scrubbed by an elderly Korean lady. She removed whole layers of my epidermis, all the while grunting in disapproval. The experience was agonizing but also completely amazing.

Korean Spa

Image by CNN

Korean scrub tables.

Being a design researcher, I’m constantly conducting real-world research on a subject area or problem. Researchers travel widely, and spend weeks interviewing, observing, shadowing, and prototyping. But even when a trip seems full of scheduled activities, there should always be room for opportunistic inspiration. Because that is the thing I value the most.

Fanhood

The price of true fanhood is never wrong.

I am an inspiration hunter. When I see 45-minutes of travel time between interviews, what I actually see a window of opportunity for a real-world experience. As well as naked scrubbing, on recent research trips, I’ve subjected my teammates and myself to:

  • Screaming like rabid fans to appear on a game show in Los Angeles.
  • Having our fortunes told by psychics in Hong Kong.
  • A workout class only described to us as “cathartic” and a “nonstop endorphin surge” in New York.
  • Getting too close to the ring at a lucha libre match in Mexico City.
Lucha Libre Match

Lucha libre match in Mexico City: more fun than a focus group.

So how exactly can one justify this as inspiration? Well, it depends on your definition of inspiration. I like to see design inspiration as something that lives in the intersection of three things: Satisfying a curiosity, Defying the expected, and Touching an emotion.

Inspiration Venn

1. Satisfying a Curiosity:

How many times have you thought to yourself, I should take that Cantonese / personal finance / fermentation course in my free time? When you’re working a design project, you’re often looking to help others adopt a new behavior or learn a new skill. You can empathize with that experience by doing something yourself that gets you outside your comfort zone.


The Class, aka scream-cardio.

2. Defying the Expected:

Of course we should be inspired by new approaches, that’s what we’re here to design. But finding people or things that truly disrupt your equilibrium can positively influence a project in all sorts of unexpected ways.

Mcdonalds Next

The McDonald’s Next restaurant in Hong Kong diverged slightly from our McMental Model.

3. Touching an Emotion:

Seek places, people, and experiences that bring out a real human emotion that you want to design for. Then surround yourself with what you find, as not to lose it. You might end up with entire mood boards or inspiration shelves from your trip, labeled “joy” and “empathy”. Keeping these artifacts in your workspace will let you feel what you first did.

Herbal Medicine 2

Herbal doctor readying a prescription.

  • Ashley Shaffer

    IDEO Alum
    Ashley is a storyteller, surfer, good eater, and sometimes runner. She resides in Cambridge, but her heart is on Pacific Standard Time.

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