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Inspiration in a Bottle

By Gary Dickson

OK, it's not exactly a bottle... it's more like a ceramic pot.
      You see, about 4 years ago I was visiting a museum of native American archeology near Benson Arizona (see www.amerind.org) when I had one of those cosmic moments. One of those brief instances where the universe seems to slow way down and everything becomes crystal clear. I was examining a collection of ancient pottery and there were several pieces that for one brief instant the universe seemed to bow down to.

inspiration On their surfaces were painted the most amazing combination of anthropomorphic, geometric and organic forms I had ever seen. I could have sat there and basked in their presence all day trying to absorb the raw energy that seemed to emanate from them. I thought to myself, if I could take into my soul just a small fraction of the design vibe that these pots seemed to exude I would somehow be cosmicly enlightened. The pots had been unearthed just south of the museum at a dig near Casas Grandes Mexico.

I asked one of the museum attendants about the pottery and was informed that a man by the name of Juan Quezada had recently re-developed the art of the ancient Paquime Indians who had made these pots hundreds of years ago. The attendant showed me several books featuring Quezada and his pots. Where the ancient Americans left off Juan had picked-up and injected the form with an energy and clarity that to me is mind-boggling. It gets even better though, as it turns out that since the early 70s Juan Quezada has been teaching the people of his village to make pottery.

Currently nearly every household in Mata Ortiz has at least one potter in it - that means 400 or so artists in one very small village are pursuing this art form that has me all wound up. This past summer, along with only a handful of other students, I was lucky enough to spend 10 days with Juan at a remote ranch in Mexico learning his technique for making pottery (see www.ranchosierramadre.com/). Ever since that first encounter in the museum I have been obsessed with this pottery. It continues to inspire my graphic design and my life.

Here now is the moral to the story

As a designer, I am obsessed with design and it seems that I find inspiration nearly everywhere I look. It's not even something I think about, it's an obsession, simply everything around me in any situation seems to have some implication for design. Sometimes I'll be driving down the road and all of a sudden the landscape itself will form a composition that will surprise me or I will be listening to a piece of music and I will speculate what that might look like if it were visual rather than auditory. The basic elements that come together to make up interesting visual design can be found echoing throughout everything around us. Those basic elements are the key to finding inspiration in the world around us.

Some of the core elements of design include hue, value, saturation, line, shape, texture, movement, proximity, balance, similarity, correspondence, figure/ground, closure, continuation, contrast and composition. (For a good essay on design theory and design gestalt theory. Bonnie Skaalid outlines the elements of graphic design).

Obviously these characteristics are not exclusive to design and can be seen, heard, tasted, smelled and felt everywhere in the world around us. Making the connection to design is for me the beauty of life itself. If that were not enough, design is also a process - each of us as designers have a process that we go through in order to create. We can observe and learn from the processes involved in executing nearly every art form and profession. Design is an obsession and I believe that obsession is essential to growing as a designer.

There is a scientific term -- heuristic bias - it is a term which means "a trained way of thinking". As human beings much of our life is guided by heuristic bias. For the most part this is a good thing. For example -- a glowing element on a stovetop would guide most of us to steer clear of it. Another more basic example would be walking - we all know that one step followed by series of similar, alternating steps equals walking. Many basic skills in life are guided by a heuristic bias.

As designers we have our own unique heuristic biases -- we have trained ourselves to think a certain way about design and about the creative process. If that way of thought only applies when we are at our desk or sketching on a note pad then we seriously need to break out of our design heuristic bias. Obsession or looking for design inspiration in everything around us is the first step. To learn more, read this essay about heuristics at CampusProgram.com. In this interesting video clip, John Bielenberg briefly touches on heuristics. (QuickTime)

Most designers have at some point hit a wall where they struggle to work creatively. There are dozens of theories on how to get past that wall. Some say just get out of the studio for an hour, some suggest doing something completely different. Inspiration should be allowed to come from as many sources as possible. This is where breaking that heuristic bias comes in - it's important to always be on the hunt, trying to find inspiration from increasingly diverse sources. I find inspiration in architecture, pottery and movies. Sometimes the inspiration is not visual at all.

In case you weren't aware, here's a news flash -- we have five senses! Inspiration for design for example may come not only from visual stimuli but also from listening to bop jazz, from the feel of moist clay in your hands, the taste of green chili enchiladas or from the smell of the ocean. But wait there's more and in fact inspiration that I find even more valuable. Often I find help from analogies that I adapt as I learn of the processes that others use in their differing fields of work or play. It's amazing to me how helpful it can be to learn of the processes that artists or professionals go through in doing their thing.

Once while talking to my brother who is an engineer I was surprised to learn how similar his process was to my creative process as a designer. Who would have thought the process for mechanical engineering might be of interest to a graphic designer. I found it very inspiring and I even found some differences that have helped me to function better as a designer from time to time.

best choice One of my greatest sources of inspiration comes from books. I must tell you that there are a lot of great ones out there that can inform, inspire and help you through tough moments as a designer. Not just books about graphic design either. I have an ever growing library of books that range in topic from psychology to architecture, mathematics, mythology and poetry. I have found help in nearly all of them for my creative process. Recently I ran across a book specifically targeted at designers who may be having a bad "brick wall" kind of moment. It is called Idea Revolution. I would highly recommend you check your local library to see if they have a copy of it. In fact I would highly recommend that you visit your local library just to nose around - that is one of my favorite things to do when I am feeling stuck creatively.

There are no hard and fast rules as to where a designer can or should find inspiration. This is how it should be. We should be ever evolving as designers - exploring and changing direction. However, I would like to offer this one last but most significant suggestion. Our source of creative fuel should be sought first and foremost in the direction of our clients. We need to look to their product, service, process or history - these are the foundation that we need in order to properly do the job for them. This is truly one of the most wonderful things about graphic design. Every time we have a new project or a new client we are faced with an opportunity to learn. Good design is design that is specifically relevant to the client and their marketing objectives.

So, this is my appeal to you designers out there. Get obsessed with design and break out of your heuristic biases. Visit the library, a construction site, the circus or the docks. Listen to some jazz, taste some greek food or smell the flowers in the park. Find the echoes of design in every sight, smell, sound, feeling, taste and process around you. Believe me it is there. Soak it up and let those echoes work within you. We are practitioners of the greatest type of work on the planet - creation!

Gary Dickson

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Copyright Gary Dickson
      Gary Dickson began doing color prepress production In 1989. In 1998 he earned his BFA in graphic design (graduating from CCAC with distinction), was an intern for John Bielenberg and went to work for Horton Lantz Marocco in Seattle. In 2000 Gary left HLM to open his own studio - Epidemic Design. Please visit his studios website and view his work at Epidemic Design.
      Permission to publish this article electronically or in print must be obtained from author prior to publication bylines must be included with publication. Please contact Gary Dickson

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