Friday, September 16, 2011

Book Review: Inspired: How creative people think, work and find inspiration

Inspired is a richly visual book comprised of 36 onsite visits to the studios, offices, ateliers and workspaces of some of Europe’s top designers, artists, writers and composers. The authors, (ICSC Graduate Student) Dorte Nielsen and Kiki Hartmann, traveled the continent with cameras, notebooks and recording devices to capture, first-hand, the words, workspaces and workbooks of men and women who have been recognized around the world for their creative contributions.

“We wanted to do a book that only looked at the process,” Nielsen shared with me. “Lots of books show the results, we wanted to do something different. Although the guys in the book are world famous for what they do, we wanted to focus on inspiration, the process and thinking.”

To each interviewee, the authors posed questions: “What inspires you?” “What’s your working environment like?” “What is your working process?” They capsulated each artist’s responses in a single page of text, followed by pages of images of that person’s open notebooks, scribbled sketches, candid studio shots and quirky collections. The results are as varied as the artists themselves.

But as page follows page, certain themes emerge. Patterns repeat. The voices of architects, painters, copywriters, and fashion designers begin to form an unintended chorus, which reveals similarities: these individuals are driven to create; they work hard to produce something new, fresh and original; they have worked hard to know their own process; they have learned to trust it; they’ve worked for years to develop their personal repertoire of words, images or icons; they are inspired by diverse and often unexpected sources; and perhaps most importantly, their commitment to their own creativity is a very intentional choice.

They aren’t creative by mistake. When it comes to creativity, these guys are professionals, and this book is a fascinating glimpse into what it takes to hone and develop one’s own creativity to the point where its manifestation can reliably, consistently and repeatedly produce a world-class product.

Inspired leaves you with the distinct impression that highly creative people find inspiration in everything – from old sunglasses to B movies, from nature to crushed pop cans. They tend to be sensory omnivores, collecting anything that piques their senses and “seeing” the world through uncommon (perhaps more porous) filters. In the book, Paul Smith, famed fashion designer, admits, “I have a very childlike view of the world. Childlike, not childish. A friend of mine once said: ‘You walk down the road and see fifty things, and I walk down the same road and see only three things.’”

Smith was one of many interviewees who reported, “I use a notebook and pencil every day.” Many others have devoted years to keeping notebooks, scrapbooks, collections and journals. Pages of those notebooks are photographed and included in the book. Pointedly, the authors have not chosen to include the artists’ finished products, such as buildings, frocks, ad slogans or paintings. Instead, we see the raw work — the notebooks, scribblings, and sketches — the inner-workings of the creative mind. As a reader, catching these intimate glimpses into someone’s creative process is almost like looking at the sock drawer of the mind. “For me,” says typographer Chris Priest, “a scrapbook is like a visual development diary, a personal journey.”

With such a variety of fodder, the book is a visual smorgasbord, with images of everything from pinup girls to walrus tusks. And while the authors clearly address the question, “How do people get inspired?” they arrive at a divergent conclusion. In fact, there are 36 different conclusions.

Therein lies the strength of the book: It remains clearly committed to its primary sources. The artists speak for themselves. Their workspaces appear in unvarnished snapshots. Their notebooks are laid opened to digital cameras.

As a student of creative studies, I cannot help myself from pinning these specimens to the scientific corkboard of theory. I find myself thinking, “Wow, that guy is such a high ideator,” or “She’s talking about the need for incubation!” or “Gosh, he really understands his work environment preferences.” I can see their “creative” personality traits lining up exactly with the Adjective Check List. I can map their process onto the stages of creative problem solving.

I’m pleased to report that, for me, understanding some aspects of creative theory has brought a richness to these isolated interviews. I am equally pleased to report that the solo voices and anecdotal insights in these interviews have brought a richness to the theory.

In the end, if it’s creativity you’re after, regardless of whether you’re interested in theory or its manifestation, you’re in for a lot of work. The years of devotion that these individuals have invested in becoming “eminent creatives” is summed up by the comments of textile designer, Vibeke Rohland who reflects on her motivation to do creative work, “I don’t know what else to do. For me there’s no such thing as a day off. I love what I do, and do it all the time. The older I get, the braver I become. But it takes time. I believe that if you want to be good at what you do, it takes time.”

Being inspired takes time. Reading Inspired is definitely time well spent.

Note, this opinion is not just my own: The book first came out in 2005. In 2010 came the 2nd edition (which is how I came to review it for this class) due to public demand. The book is being reprinted for the 5th time in 2011. It's sold worldwide in Asia (Japan, Hong Kong, China), Australia, USA and Europe. It's a part of the curriculum for design, advertising and fashion students in London, Melbourne and Copenhagen.

Sarah Thurber is managing partner of FourSight, LLC, a Chicago publishing firm that develops researched-based tools to promote team innovation.

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