“Where do you get your inspiration?” is a lazy question to ask

“Where do you get your inspiration?” It’s The Question of a thousand interviews with creatives. But it’s a lazy question to ask, an impossible question to answer and a stupid question to publish.

“Where do you get your inspiration?” is a lazy question to ask

“Where do you get your inspiration?” It’s The Question of a thousand interviews with creatives. But it’s a lazy question to ask, an impossible question to answer and a stupid question to publish.

More than anything, the question is dull. Until recently, I had never seen it answered in an interesting way. Now, thanks to the novelist Sebastian Faulks in The Guardian, I have seen it answered once in an interesting way. Where do I get my ideas from, he pondered?

“I get them from a well outside a small mining village in New South Wales. I have a cottage there now, but am not prepared to reveal the name of the village. You can probably find it on GoogleMaps, though, if you type in ‘well’ and ‘ideas’.”

What is it the interviewer is trying to learn by asking The Question? I suppose it’s — “How do you end up making what you make? How do you end up thinking what you think?”

Messiness and magic aren’t the same thing

But the presumption of the premise is off — that inspiration leads to ideas leads to creative action. That there’s a neat tidy flow diagram to explaining the unexplainable creative process.

And I get that people are nervous about making too much of a mystery of how the painter paints, or the designer designs, or the choreographer choreographs. But messiness and magic aren’t the same thing. You can believe in messiness without defaulting to the spiritual plane.

The graphic designer Paula Scher likens the creative process to a casino slot machine. You have all this stuff rolling around in your head — every book you’ve read and film you’ve seen and course you’ve taken, but also the things your bus passed this morning, and the colour of the type on your tube of toothpaste.

As a designer you get a brief, which in her analogy is the quarter. You pop it in, pull the handle, and wait. Sometimes, gloriously, three cherries show up. Very often they don’t. There are permutations too — sometimes it looks like you’ve hit the jackpot until something clicks right at the end to spoil it. Sometimes it looks futile, and then things line up in a way you never saw coming.

As someone who doesn’t work in the creative industries, but makes a living talking to those who do, this analogy is the best I have heard to describe this beautifully chaotic happenstance.

Pulling the slot machine lever

There was a study a few years ago in Maryland which looked at the brains of improvised rappers as they created spontaneous lyrics (or “spit their rhymes” as the cool kids ((maybe)) say).

The research team found that the parts of the brain linked to rational, logical thought shut down, letting the parts of the brain linked to visceral, emotional connections take over (I am paraphrasing the science here). But the overarching point is interesting. When these rappers stand on stage, they are not working through the neat and tidy inspiration-idea-actin diagram implied by The Question. “Ah, bitchin, rhymes nicely with kitchen. It scans too!”

They too are pulling the slot machine lever. So what matters is all that stuff Paula Scher identified rolling around in our minds. And if that is what matters, then inspiration as an active process starts to seem silly. We can go on “inspiration safaris” — doggedly pacing the museum or pirouetting through the creative blogosphere to add all these great references to our pile. But, when it comes down to it and you go to have lunch, the weird way the waiter pronounces “anything” will likely take hold just as much.

If we accept this, the idea of happenstance and serendipity starts to seem more important. These precious things are becoming increasingly rare in our digitally-defined lives. Much has been made of the so-called “filter bubble” problem. Particularly as far as politics is concerned, the dangers of being trapped in scenarios where our ingrained ways of looking at the world are reflected back at us have been well described.

But the same thing must be happening in the creative communities. George Howard wrote an impassioned piece for Forbes decrying the faith we have come to put in curation. “What’s lacking,” he wrote, “and what we need more of are collisions: unexpected encounters with people, ideas and art that are random.”

I appreciate that random is both an overused word and a relative idea. But one of the things I love about curating for WeTransfer is this sense of serendipity. For a start, people come to the site to send files, not to peruse artwork. The expectation is fixed. And while that might mean millions of people don’t even notice the background wallpapers, it also means that for those who do, they can be caught off guard.

That feels like an exciting way to fire off some of these collisions. Secondly, we don’t curate an experience for you based on your previous likes/dislikes etc. I mean we can’t; we don’t have the data.

But I think that can be quite special too. We have the ability to present you with art and animation, illustration and photography and design that you never knew you might be interested in.

The big online gatekeepers, in the words of Howard, rely on, “constructed architectures of curation designed to accelerate network-effect growth via essentially allowing users to carefully cultivate their lists of friends and followers in ways that increase the likelihood of delightful dopamine hits from positive feedback.” Or, to put it more simply, they show you stuff they pretty much know you like.

We don’t really do that. We hope to create that moment of collision, of unexpected connections firing off in the synapses of your brain. We hope that leads to three cherries, because let’s be honest. Inspiration is nothing unless you do something with it.

This piece is based on a talk given at Creative Mornings Amsterdam, in April 2017.