You know how sometimes you get a song stuck in your head? An earworm that just keeps repeating, relentlessly, until you find yourself humming along even if you’re trying not to? And you try to think of something else, but your brain just keeps circling back to that one song for no good reason? That happens to me too, but with shapes. And at the most inconvenient times, like when I’m trying to sleep like a normal human.
Let me back up a sec. I’m a designer. Designers are always looking at things, thinking about the planning and problem-solving that went into the creation of those things. Since we are so often asked to create new things, we are always drawing inspiration from what came before. We often log those things somehow—a stenciled sign on the side of a building, the profile of a taillight on a sportscar, the ornate placard at the box office of an old theater. We see the world in shapes, colors, lines and layouts and we jot it down, sketch it, screenshot it and come back to it later when we’re looking for inspiration.
Sometimes these shapes and lines stick with me for awhile. They morph and shift and play around in my head and generally just won’t LEAVE ME ALONE.
Usually it’s a very kinetic thing. In my mind, I’m traveling the length of the shape, following its curves and twists in a rhythmic, cyclical way, around and around, like an infinitely looping roller coaster. Which sounds fun, until you’ve taken your 400th trip around the roller coaster and you’re ready to get off the ride and move onto something else. Most often it’s a shape, but sometimes it’s a smooth gradient of colors or the uppercase G from a really unusual typeface that I can’t remember if I invented or not.
I’m the most susceptible to these persistent shapes at night, when I’m either trying to fall asleep or am dreaming. Sometimes a shape forms in my head and I groggily think to myself, “This is gold! Nobody has EVER thought of this shape before! I need to remember this one for sure!” And so I squint in the general direction of my nightstand, grab my phone that’s charging there and open up the Notes app so I can clumsily sketch out a feeble representation of the masterpiece my subconscious artfully crafted.
In the morning, these sketches are often head-scratchers. (Why did I think this was so innovative? It really seemed more impressive when I was literally not conscious.) But sometimes there’s a good skeleton of a shape that could be a logo someday.
Sometimes I do notice a link between a shape I dreamt and a finished design in my work, even if I didn’t deliberately reference that dream’s sketch in my design process. But that may just be a product of going through natural artistic phases. I might spend a couple weeks SUPER into industrial signage and notice that motif appearing in a logo design for a client, all while having dreams of stout letterforms laser cut from metal, but it may be correlation as much as causation.
It’s not always inspiring. I feel not inspired all the time. There's a theory that you can get a song out of your head by listening to the entire thing through once. You get it out of your system so that you can move on to something else. And sometimes that’s the only reason I sketch one of these persistent shapes—so it will leave me the eff alone.
I think you have to be in a certain kind of open mindset in order to let inspiration in. And none of us is in that mindset all the time. That’s exactly why I go out of my way to record the things that do strike me. I need to have something to go back to when I’m staring at a blank screen and need a place to start. My sketchbooks, my Notes app, a folder on my desktop—these are the sparks that can help get a fire started.