Recently, I moved into a full-time creative role here at Builtvisible, so now much of my time is spent grasping for inspiration. Somehow, seemingly against all odds and much to my own surprise, I usually manage to find it. Often, people will ask what the process is, what method I use.
Honestly, though, my own grasp on how I come by ideas is tenuous at best. It’s an odd brain event, some fleeting connection between thoughts that comes in unbidden flashes. There’s a tale from the history of science that I’m fond of recounting, because I think it illustrates the point nicely. The tale may well be apocryphal, but I think the point still stands. There are plenty of other such stories from the history books, so substitute one of those if you prefer.
The ‘Eureka!’ moment is just the tip of the iceberg
The story goes that August Kekule, a German chemist had been working for years trying to discern the structure of the benzene molecule and its chemical bonds. Despite this work, the truth of the matter eluded him still.
One day, Kekule found himself day dreaming when he envisioned a snake swallowing its own tail to form a ring. That was the event that triggered in his mind the leap he’d been looking for – the benzene molecule is formed from an inner ring of carbon atoms, each bonded with a single hydrogen atom.
It sounds like a moment of inspiration, sudden and unexpected as lightning, but that’s not really the whole truth. That flash of inspiration was just the turning point in an investigative process that had spanned years. It wouldn’t have happened had Kekule not spent that time sharpening his mind and providing it with the raw materials he needed to start piecing things together.
These ‘Eureka’ moments are scattered throughout the history of science (not to mention other fields), and they’re often romanticised as a single moment that changes the course of scientific progress. That’s a pleasant fiction, but in every case, these moments were experienced by individuals who devoted themselves to their craft and were presaged by years of work.
As I see it, the creative process is the same. There’s no forcing it. You can’t just ‘have ideas’; you can only create conditions conducive to having good ideas. I really don’t think I’m any better at it than anyone else, but I do try to equip myself with as much ammunition as possible.
In its basest form, the approach really just comes down to ‘read lots’. That doesn’t make for a great read, though, so here are some things I do to try and encourage the natural formation of ideas.
For me, writing things down is where it all starts. When I say writing, I mean writing, not typing. I can’t explain it, but for some reason I find that writing things by hand, with a pen, on paper (quaint, I know) just makes things sink in better. These types of notes are best suited to elucidating my own thought processes, to stream-of-consciousness style jotting down that can really help you make connections between different ideas. Of course, when I want organised notes, I turn to solutions more becoming of the information age.
OneNote, the black sheep of the MS Office family, is a fantastic tool for that latter purpose, and it’s incredible how few people are aware of OneNote and what it can do. You can make notes, cross reference them between multiple notebooks, and have as many people as you like share the same notebook and use it collaboratively.
The software is irrelevant, though. The point is that inspiration is something that happens to you, and you need to capitalise on it when it does, rather than letting it pass you by. Making notes of ideas you have as and when you have them is going to save you a lot of time down the road, and can preserve a lot of good ideas from fading away and escaping you.
Your notes don’t even have to be ideas. I like to make notes of keywords associated with a particular client or niche, themes I’d like to include in a piece one day, or links to articles I thought were interesting.
It takes a while for this sort of thing to pay off, but in a few months, you’ll have a notebook overflowing with themes and concepts and ideas to which you’ve gone back and gradually expanded piece by piece. I really can’t overstate how powerful a resource that can be, and how it can save you hours of banging your head against a wall looking for ideas.
I think this really is the most important part of the ‘process’. When I say ‘read’ I don’t mean War and Peace. Read anything. The widest variety of material you can. Sit and click the ‘random article’ button on Wikipedia for a while. Click that Outbrain link at the bottom of the Guardian article you were reading. Pick up a book just because the cover looks interesting, or because it’s on a topic you’ve never heard of before.
It’s actually slightly more complex than just reading, though. You have to be into the subject, which means cultivating broad interests in anything and everything you can get your eyes on. It’s hard to really engage with a topic if you just don’t care about it, and your level of interest will certainly come through in the finished piece.
As much as I hate to ring that clichéd bell, it’s true that telling interesting stories makes for great content, and so it’s all a matter of equipping yourself with as much knowledge as you can possibly accrue. Then you can start finding interesting connections between all the things you’ve read, ways to relate one topic to another. Once you can do that, you’re starting to say something new.
Authors of great stories are often great at hiding them away
Truth is, though, that interesting stories don’t even have to be original. There are sources all over the web that are frankly under-appreciated, and largely unread, despite being a veritable goldmine of utterly fascinating information.
Academic resources like scholar.google.com and JSTOR are great examples. They search for academic journal articles, pretty high-level stuff. How many people (outside of colleges and universities) do you think read these articles? How many of them do you think have interesting stories to tell? Assuming your answers are, respectively, ‘hardly anyone’ and ‘lots’, you’ll see why this is such a worthwhile resource.
Take that information and tell its story in a way that’s accessible to everyone and you’re exposing readers to information of which they’d otherwise know nothing, and that’s honestly a valuable and engaging service.
If you didn’t know it, it’s probably worth saying
Ultimately, I think this comes down to being aware of the staggering number of opportunities to tell stories that are around you every day. They’re easy to miss, but they’re everywhere, and there’s real magic in the intricate details of the world we encounter daily, but don’t notice.
Assuming this is what you do for a living, you’re constantly bombarded with this information, checking out other content pieces and researching your own. That probably means that you read more than the average individual, right?
Well, if that’s the case, then remember it each time you read about something new. If it’s new to you, it’s probably new to the majority of people who don’t spend quite as much time hanging out on the web as you do. Share the delight you found in learning something new, or seeing something old in a new way, with the rest of the world, and the chances are that they’ll enjoy it as much as you did.