Cultivating Inspiration

The Myth of the Aha! Moment and How to Structure an Aha! Routine

Michelle Thompson

The elusive Aha! moment, so desperately desired in the design process, is a misconception. Triggering the epiphany you’ve been searching for requires a lot of back-work. These sudden bursts of insight are proceeded by many hours of incremental unconscious processing followed by structured brainstorming. Inspiration is not something stumbled upon but worked for and continuously built upon.

Lightbulbs hovering over our heads, patiently waiting to be illuminated by a force outside of our understanding, don’t exist. There is no magic about insight. “Studies show that insight is not a sudden flash that comes from nowhere, but in fact is the result of the unconscious mind piecing together loosely connected bits of information stemming from prior knowledge and experiences and forming associations among them.”

Insight is needed when creative problem solving. To structure consistent ideation filled with Aha! moments, or insight, you need to increase your knowledge and experiences.

Where does one start? As a designer I might look at other’s designs, read design centered blogs and literature, and attend talks and presentations. The potential for problems arise with such a narrow focus. Inspiration relies on connecting dissimilar information into a new creative solution. By solely depending on other’s design solutions for inspiration you will have a hard time finding your voice and your potential for creative problem solving. In a saturated environment design can feel more derivative than inspired. Platforms like dribbble, Instagram, and Behance can be wonderful tools in sharing and connecting with the design community. They can also lead to a more homogenous visual landscape. What then are some other ways in which to expand your visual language and creative thinking?

Here are some tips for creating space for inspiration to flourish, furthering your unique point of view.

Follow the Rabbit Hole

When curiosity strikes see where it leads. If something piques your interest, don’t be afraid to explore. Be present and open to the endless variety of expert driven content that is widely available to you. When driven by the desire for discovery, I advocate the following:

1. Read Read Read!

You should absolutely read design articles and blogs, but also read for the sheer enjoyment of reading. You will learn in the process. Fiction, nonfiction, it doesn’t matter. Not to laud Wikipedia (which can be both fiction and nonfiction), but I admit I have spent hours clicking through various articles as each bit of information obtained developed another facet of a larger unfamiliar story. There is something to be gained by reading well written prose, whether it’s instructional, historical, narrative, or all of the above. We are shaped by our language and to read another’s crafted thoughts gives insight to their soul, and in return shapes ours.

2. Watch a Film

If reading isn’t your bag watch a documentary, an acclaimed film, or an educational YouTube video. Film has a wonderful capacity to convey narrative and bring visuals to life. I never engaged half so much in math during my traditional high school algebra II class as I did watching YouTuber “Vihart.” Why? Because her math centered videos engaged my brain in a different, entertaining, visual approach that resonated with me. I enjoyed it and therefore wanted to learn more.

3. Visit Museums

This is a personal favorite so I’m a bit biased, but I cannot stress how important it is to take advantage of the various museums and galleries in your city and surrounding area. The tiny off-the-beaten-path exhibitions are just as interesting as the household name museums. Find just as much interest in going to The Funeral Museum as you would in the going to the Smithsonian. By being open to all levels of institutions it will help you see from different perspectives. The exhibits in all museums have been carefully thought through and curated by experts to allow the attendee to be absorbed by the experience and gain a better, thoughtful understanding of what’s in front of them.

4. Not Just For the Extrovert — Reach Out to an Expert

This is a great practice and I encourage this exercise for all whom this may seem terrifying. Speaking to strangers, me?? Yes you! There is no shame in reaching out to someone whom you think highly of and could learn from. It will often be received flatteringly and you will gain more insight than if you had sat in the back of the class, so to speak.

5. Take Time to Experience

Be a person who says “yes” to new experiences. This is how you learn first hand about who you are and the world in which you live. Try new things, go to new places and appreciate different approaches to life.

A New Aha! Routine

You’ve taken time to develop new and divergent knowledge, now how do you apply your insights to your designs? What is your motivation in working on and solving this problem? What is the ultimate goal? Your overall goals will inform your design. Reflect on your “Why?” Once you can answer these questions work backwards to set guidelines for your thought process. It’s important to structure the development and growth of your inspiration-turned ideas. Here are a few tips for supporting inspiration through structuring a practiced thought process:

1. Take a Walk

“All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking.” — Friedrich Nietzsche

As rudimentary as it sounds, after experiencing and learning new information simply reflecting while involving a physical activity can stimulate brand new ideas. In one Stanford University study, researchers found that walking boosts creative output by 60 percent. Large and disparate areas of the brain are needed just to coordinate our movements and maintain balance while we walk. The act of walking stimulates brain function and can give clarity to our thought process which is ideal for allowing inspiration to form.

2. Be a Notetaker

When an idea crosses your mind don’t let it slip by. If you don’t keep pen and paper on you, download a free notes app (if you have an iPhone you already have one at your disposal!) for easy access. As you reflect and process new information it’s important to jot down any conclusions and solutions that come to you for you to mull over and iterate on in the future.

2. Marie Kondo Your Thoughts

Now that you have a nice pile of potential ideas, organize them! Does your idea spark joy? No? Probably best to thank it and move on. If you aren’t excited about your ideas most likely others won’t be either. They might even be great ideas, but if you can’t get behind them you won’t be able to convince anyone - teammates, clients, stakeholders, or users about them either. A simple way to organize your thoughts is with a Priority Matrix.

4. Set Your Environment

Consider your thinking space your work environment. Our thoughts are susceptible to external influence, so surround yourself in an environment in which you flourish creatively, whether that be with candles, extra post-it notes, a good desk and/or natural lighting. First find peace and energy in your space, then get to the work of thinking.

5. Brainstorm

Now that you’re in your work mode you can get to the nitty gritty of brainstorming. There are many ways to do this with just a pen and paper. You can try you hand at Mind Mapping, Brainwriting, SWOT Analysis, Starbursting, or “What If” Brainstorming. There are many techniques to prompt your inspiration in a structured manner. The key to brainstorming effectively is practice and to keep digging for more.