Inspiration is a common topic in creative work. Where does it come from? How can you get it, and what can you do to improve inspiration in your own work?
The broad answer to all of these questions is simply this - to create inspired work, you need to be inspired yourself. You need to find sources of creative energy that fill you with emotion, and drive you to express your own thoughts and ideas.
Here are a few tips for bringing greater inspiration to your own work.
You’ve heard the old saying,
“Curiosity killed the cat.”
The lesser known rejoinder to that sentence however is,
“Satisfaction brought it back.”
Curiosity is perhaps the most important key to filling up your creative “energy bank”. New ideas, new experiences, new sights, sounds, people and places are all profound sources of inspiration.
But here’s the catch – human brains are hard-wired to find patterns, and we get tremendous satisfaction from recognizing them. In terms of our tastes, that translates into a tendency to stick to the things that we know. Game creators tend to be gamers themselves, and so play the most popular titles, or watch shows, movies, or anime that are high in the awareness of pop culture, often to the exclusion of other things. And that tendency is a common mistake that creative professionals make, because it means that their creative inputs (and subsequently their outputs) tend to have a sameness. Whatever inputs are common at the time become strong influences that permeate through the work of all of the creators who consume that original influencing product. This is one of the reasons why competing Hollywood movie studios have such a strange tendency to put out movies that are very similar to each other at the same time – the creative “inputs” when the projects were starting out tended to be the same.
Sometimes sameness is good. After all, if there’s a proven audience for a particular movie, TV show or comic book, then it can be argued that new creative works that are influenced by them are more likely to find similar market success. But that approach has some potential drawbacks. Audiences tend to react badly to “knock-offs” or “copycat” products. If the influences are too obvious, your creative work has the risk of seeming repetitive, or even worse – boring.
If you want to do truly original work, it’s valuable to break out of your comfort zone in terms of your creative inputs. Find new things to inspire your imagination, or ignite your passions – don’t just rely on the latest hot trends in popular culture.
The easiest way to ensure that you’re always seeking out new inputs is through a natural sense of curiosity. If you’re lucky enough to be naturally curious, you’ll probably find it easy to find new things that fascinate you, or new topics to explore. But if not – your curiosity can be strengthened, like a muscle. Make a commitment to yourself to seek out new sources of inspiration on a regular basis. For example, you could set yourself a goal of investigating a new subject – anything at all – once a month. And to ensure that you’ve learned all you can on the topic, make an appointment to teach what you’ve learned to someone. It could be in an informal setting – for example over lunch, where you share what you’ve discovered on your monthly foray into the unknown. Or it could be more formal – for example a power point presentation for the benefit of your team, coworkers, or even a local interest group. Presentations like this can even form the basis for great talks at professional conferences like GDC or PAX.
It’s hardly revolutionary advice to hear that you should keep some sort of a creative journal. But if you’re not doing it already, then it bears repeating – you should keep a creative journal.
I used to favor an ever-growing collection of hardcover Molskine journals, in which I would jot down all of thoughts that struck me throughout the day. I still love my notebooks, but as time and technology have advanced I’ve started to migrate to other forms of capturing creative notes.
For example, I use Apple’s Notepad App on my iPhone to capture simple notes when I’m away from my computer or keyboard. With iCloud integration that means that notes that I scribble on my phone are available to me when I log into my laptop or workstation and open the app there. I’ve gotten in the habit of jotting down all sorts of random thoughts as they strike me, especially when I’m drifting off to sleep. My wife doesn’t appreciate the sudden flare of the cell phone screen in the dark, but there are workarounds (like hiding it halfway under a pillow before I tap the power button).
Another handy electronic tool is the Voice Memo app on my iPhone. If I’m on the road, and I can’t take time to write notes out on Notepad, I can easily find a moment to record a short voice memo that I can review later, or transpose to text if I need to.
Pintrest is another handy tool for collecting creative inspiration. A few minutes setting up a Pintrest account and choosing some interesting feeds to follow can net you a continuous stream of interesting visual posts and articles that can help feed your curiosity. And of course, it makes it easy to snag things on the web that catch your eye and save them for later perusal.
Sometimes it’s difficult to find a source for creative inspiration. You might not find something that truly fires your imagination in your monthly curiosity quests. Not to worry – just start telling yourself a story.
This technique grew out of games that I used to play with my kids. We’d pick a setting and a character. With my daughters I used to get a lot of bunnies, and unicorns. My son tended to favor robots. And then I’d ask, “What makes that character special?” I wasn’t looking for answers like “He’s very nice.” or “She’s a good listener.” I needed more than that. I was generally looking for something that would I was looking for some kind of twist on the regular behavior of the character. Invariably, they would come up with some pretty interesting answers – sometimes the bunny could turn invisible, or it could help its friends with healing powers. But one time there was a pride of lions with elemental powers. And once the robot was a kid who also happened to be a pro wrestler who battled opponents from outer space.
After we had our character - and the thing that made them different from all the other bunnies or robots - we’d start cooperatively telling a story. We’d take turns, describing what the protagonist was doing, situations they might encounter, or other characters that they might meet along the way. Sometimes the story would simply flow, and our favorite characters would make re-appearances in later play sessions. But sometimes it didn’t really work. We weren’t inspired by the characters or the setting, and we’d mutually decide to just set the exercise aside. And that was fine - sometimes the exercise doesn't lead to real inspiration. But like the curiosity strengthening exercises above, this process can help strengthen your creative muscle.
Of course you don’t need a kid to do this - you can easily do it yourself. Let yourself explore stories, or characters that pop into your head. Even if you’re not a natural storyteller, you can still imagine experiences that you might like a player to have, or feelings that you’d like to try and create in your target audience, and base your stories on those.
Inspiration is critical to successful creative work. Use any or all of these techniques to help ensure that your creative batteries are well charged.
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