Inspiration: How to find it, what to do with it


Inspiration: It’s both a flighty muse and a workhorse we need to help us solve problems in meaningful ways.

Elusive, omnipresent, visceral, and an utterly essential instigator to creativity — inspiration comes to us randomly, yet appears just when we need it (sometimes). It births new ideas and elevates existing ones. Plays hide and seek in our brains. Lures us to look deeper, longer, further…

We don’t mean to sound murky; it’s just that getting inspired isn’t a 1-2-3 process with rules and checklists. Rather, making the muse work for us is an ongoing practice. To get under the hood of finding and using inspiration, we sought out Vanessa Holden, whose job it is to inspire. As the senior vice president and creative director of the lifestyle retailer West Elm, she spends her days designing ways to show people how to be creative at home. With us, she shares her approach to discovery.

Always ready and willing
Like the rest of us, Vanessa is a busy person, so she consciously looks for inspiration as she goes about her day. “Inspiration is not a destination. It’s being open to seeing things that makes the difference,” she says. It might be color on a wall or what someone is wearing in the subway. “Sometimes I’ll go with the intent to find inspiration. I love going directly to the source material, like an art gallery, a stroll through a garden, or diving into a book. But that’s not the reality of my day-to-day, so I have to stay open to what’s around me almost all the time.”

Staying open — what exactly does this mean?

Science, of all things, offers a prime example. When a scientist designs an experiment, it means he is willing to consider that a fact, as he knows it, may not be a hard truth. He considers new information and applies it to the situation. He discovers new aspects and possibly adapts his thinking. Look, consider, discover, adapt.

It only takes a few adjustments for anyone to do this.

First, don’t be an expert. Let yourself be vulnerable enough to know you could learn something new. This makes you a willing participant to different ideas. (Besides, acting like you already know everything is generally unappealing.)

Second, listen more than you talk. You can’t take in new information if you are the dominant voice in a conversation — with others or in your head.

Then, ask “What if…?” Grab a new idea and run with it. You’ll find that your straight line of belief has tentacles of possibilities that you can chase.

That’s what Vanessa does when something pricks her interest. At a flea market, if she spies an object that feels familiar, she looks for the trigger. If a table feels comfortable, she’ll ponder if it’s the tile or the wood that attracts her. She starts with senses and emotions, then moves to thoughts, and then asks for feedback. Her exploration goes something like this:

Analyze responses, make connections. “I have a sensory checklist,” Vanessa explains. “Why am I feeling this way? Then I bring in other senses. What am I hearing? What am I smelling? I consider the tactile nature of what’s going on. With that depth of understanding, I’m able to make the connection. I realize that this banquette I’m looking at reminds me of Paris, which leads me on to a new path of references, ideas, and opportunities,” she explains.

Build context. “It’s a creative skill to be able to look at all the inspiration you have, put it through a sieve, and pop something out that’s new,” says Vanessa. To make the connections that aren’t obviously there, she turns to words. “Attaching a narrative is a useful way to filter. I start writing a lot. I use single key words, short phrases and often visual descriptions of color, light, or texture to begin to distill the mood or idea I’m trying to communicate.”

Get reactions from others. “Most ideas need a bit of polishing. I prefer collaborative ideation and conversation to refine ideas. I’m always more interested when it engages with more people. For me to be satisfied, somebody else has to identify.”

What to do when the muse eludes
Even pros have their uninspired moments. “No one is excellent at creativity; it’s a practice.” Vanessa points out. That’s when she returns to things she knows excite her, such as the Museum of Modern Art or a surfing movie — “to me, the idea of surfing is about expression. It shows that you can make something out of nothing. It’s one of my oldest reference points, and one that just triggers a freeing of my mind to associate freely and broadly.”

Or, instead of watching, she starts creating: “When I’m not feeling inspired, I’ll make stuff with my kids. There is nothing like physically making something to push yourself to think about something differently and to inspire new ideas, and nothing that a trip to Pearl Paint doesn’t fix.”

Inspiration scratch and sniff test
Now it’s your turn to find inspiration that will fuel fresh ideas. If this is new-ish to you, it helps to have a basis for evaluation, to make sure you’re pursuing something really good. Think of the list below as a cheat sheet to call on as you, like Vanessa, remain open to inspiration everywhere.

Let go of  >> Try instead
• Stale/fixed ideas >> Counterintuitive thinking
• Clichés >> Fresh language
• Obvious sources or solutions >> Unusual resources
• Linear thinking >> The art of looking sideways
• Established patterns >> Unexpected pairings
• Dominant trends >> Ideas that run counter to trends

PRINTABLE TIP CARD #12: How to keep an open mind so you can find inspiration

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