The origins of design inspiration: an interview with Simon Cooke

Get inspired

Simon Cooke, commercial director of Brighton-based WordPress agency Pragmatic and co-founder of the IWP Awards, a new initiative to celebrate talent in the WordPress community, tackled a big question at WordCamp Europe in Belgrade last month: where does design inspiration come from?

In his talk on the main stage Simon explained that ideation is just one of five stages of design thinking, a process for creative problem solving. He then dug into tools of ideation, the process of inspiration (which includes finding your own personal rhythm), and influence (which he equated with inspiration).

We sat down with Simon afterwards to find out more about where ideas really come from.

The ideation phase sits right in the middle of the five stages of design thinking. What are the other ones?

SC: They’re all equally important, and the first stage is empathy. The idea is to put yourself in the shoes of your user and look at the problem from their perspective. That’s not easy because designers tend to make assumptions. The process of empathy breaks down into interviews, questionnaires and workshops – it’s all background research. The point is you’re not influencing the user’s answer, you’re giving them the time to think and give you an honest opinion of the problems that they’re facing. It’s very effective for web design but it works for any type of design and advertising. Once you’ve gone through this exercise and have collated all the data, you can start to understand what it really feels like for your users. Quite often there are some revelations, things that you or your team never would have thought of.

The empathy stage precedes the definition stage, which is about being able to articulate the problem. You decipher the data, and then your next task is to set off the design and creative team on the ideation stage by creating a brief that has a succinct objective, so you have to have a number of achievable and measurable objectives and definitions. Without those it’s just like letting a bunch of wild horses out of the gate that run in any direction. The definition gives people a direction. Having a good brief is incredibly helpful.

The ideation stage, which we’ll talk about in more detail in a bit, is where ideas are generated.

So, assuming the team has an idea and lots of concepts that they’re going to work with, you move on to prototyping. This can include interactive wireframes, lo-fi versions of what you’re working on, and you can use various tools such as InVision. The idea is that you don’t get too far down any given path without realising your assumptions are incorrect. Prototyping allows you to quickly test and release an interactive version of what you’re working on.

In the last stage, testing, you show your prototypes to the team or client and get their feedback. It’s still lo-fi, and the idea is that you get valuable feedback and see actual user interaction with whatever it is you’ve designed. This stage comes back in a loop. If you create a prototype and test it, it will never be 100 percent right at the first go. You can tweak and take it back to the definition stage, redefine the problem and redevelop an idea or a hypothesis to solving that problem and again prototype. It’s a continuous loop until you end up with something that is shippable.

As the length of the ideation stage can very wildly, how do you speed up this process?

SC: There are various ideation tools that you can use, particularly sketching, mind mapping and brainstorming. All of these are very much designed to make the ideation process efficient. Without them you’re left drifting, not knowing where to start. These tools help you focus on the ideation phase. They give you a path to go down and a direction to take. Some of those are digital tools that provide input like Chrome extension Muzli and mind mapping app Mindly.

What do you do when the ideas are not coming and you suffer from creative block?

SC: There is actually a relatively easy way to stop yourself getting creative block: keep healthy and be comfortable in your environment. Make sure you’re in an environment that’s conducive to creativity and allow yourself to be influenced. Then you’re going to be inspired. If you don’t talk to people, don’t read or listen to creative content, don’t get out of the office and experience the world and look at architecture, for example, you’re not absorbing any influence. As a result of that you won’t be inspired.

What are some of your favourite tools to get inspired?

SC: Audiobooks and podcasts are very effective, like The Accidental Creative or the DesignBetter.Co podcast. Personally, I create a lot of artwork. I draw and paint at home. I just really enjoy absorbing creative content in any form. I’m particularly interested in painting, architecture and interior design, which have an influential effect on me. That’s the shape of my world. Many designers are also into typography or gaming and that personal take on your influence is what drives you. If you try and be a generic designer and just soak up the design content that you’re fed on a daily basis, from Dribbble to httpster, then that’s what’s going to come out at the other end. If you accept and embrace your own personal interests, then what you produce is much richer.

What the best time of the day to be creative?

SC: Most creative people have a rhythm. There is a period whilst you’re working when you know that you’re in the zone. You’re feeling really productive and positive about what you’re doing. Rhythm is directly associated with mood, so the morning peak can be really productive for creative minds, then there is a dip in the day that we all experience around lunchtime and early afternoon and then we peak again in the afternoon.

There’s a study by Daniel H Pink called When – The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing that shows how the creative rhythm drifts off a little in the afternoon. Only when you start to give yourself just a little bit more time to think about the things that happened yesterday or last week, or the things that you might have pinned on your Pinterest board or liked on Instagram, the the ideas start sparking. You need to give yourself time to connect those bits of visual creative influence that are imprinted on your brain.

So most people don’t have the best ideas in the shower in the morning?

SC: We’re not all the same, I do have plenty of ideas in the morning. Quite often even before I get out of bed, I stare at the ceiling at 7am and think of a great idea. I actually get ideas at both ends of the day but that’s just me. If you know that you’re particularly creative in the morning, then make a bit of time and space around that time and allow those ideas to surface. And don’t schedule a brainstorming meeting for one o’clock in the afternoon. That’s probably a bad idea.

What role do people play in the ideation process?

SC: They play a huge role! For me they’re more important than anything else. I find the earlier and the more you share your ideas, the better the outcome can be. In his book, Making Ideas Happen, Scott Belsky, the founder of Behance, illustrates how the community can help filter ideas that have legs. You know that they’re going to go somewhere because they’re being accepted. If enough people think it’s a good idea, it gains traction and you can work with it. I find the quicker you surface those ideas and share them with people, the quicker you recognise that maybe you shouldn’t pursue that idea that you thought was world-changing but nobody seems interested in and pursue the one that people have given you good feedback on instead.

If you can’t share ideas in the office, at co-working spaces or at meetups, you have to lean on the digital environment a lot more. Ello, the artist network, is brilliant and advert free, for example. I put up concepts on there very early, before they’re going anywhere, just to get feedback. [See Simon’s profile at ello.co/sicooke].

For more inspiration, check out our complete coverage of WordCamp Europe, including interviews with Matt Mullenweg, John Maeda, and Tammie Lister.

Oliver Lindberg
Oliver is an independent editor, content consultant, and founder of the Pixel Pioneers events series. He has been involved with the web design and development industry for more than a decade, and helps businesses across the world create content that connects with their customers. He is particularly passionate about user experience, inclusive design, and advocating for social good.