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Source Inspiration

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Updated November 3, 2022

You’re reading an excerpt of Creative Doing, by Herbert Lui. 75 practical techniques to unlock creative potential in your work, hobby, or next career. Purchase now for instant, lifetime access to the book.

One of the most difficult parts of creative work is sitting down and deciding what to actually do. One solution to that is to draw from a predefined source, each day. For example, over a decade after he first worked as a lecturer at Yale, graphic designer and Pentagram partner Michael Bierut assigned a brand new project to his students: pick an activity and commit to doing it for 100 days in a row. This project emerged from a practice that Bierut had started five years prior to the assignment, starting January 1, 2002.

Every day, Bierut would make one interpretive drawing of a photo he found in the New York Times. These drawings could take just a few minutes, perhaps even a matter of seconds. They could also be more elaborate, if he had the time. But no matter what, he never ran out of ideas—because every day the New York Times came out, he would get more. You’re free to do what Bierut did, which is to pick a source that provides a constant stream of new ideas.

You could also choose to train your attention, by taking photos of an object that you like anytime you see it in your life. Virgil Abloh observed an acquaintance taking a photo every time he saw a specific luxury handbag, which essentially trained his mind to see it during his day-to-day life. Abloh said, “If you want to find new space, if you want to get to another crescendo of design, and having your brain figure out how to aesthetically put together something, you have to do it often.” You could also do this with visual patterns, as Abloh did with diagonal stripes.

If you prefer writing fiction, you could respond to the r/WritingPrompts subreddit, which surfaces new prompts every day. If you’re more interested in nonfiction or memoir writing, you can try author and speaker Suleika Jaouad’s The Isolation Journals.

You could also prepare a set of sources. For example, before Bierut’s student Zak Klauck started doing his 60-second posters, he had put together 100 phrases (some from friends, others he selected on his own) to design from. That meant the 60 seconds could be spent working on the actual poster, not finding a source or thinking of what to do.

If you want to learn more, I’ve compiled a comprehensive list of 25 daily creative challenges at my blog.

Roll the Dice

Letting go of control, and introducing chaos into an environment, is one of the keys to cultivating creativity. If you’re ever experiencing blockage or a sense of stuckness on a decision, try opening the door to chance in order to support your creative work.

In The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity, authors Robert K. Merton and Elinor Barber quote the late Professor Salvador Luria of the University of Illinois as praising “controlled sloppiness, which states that it often pays to do somewhat untidy experiments, provided one is aware of the element of untidiness.” In any case, the idea here is to trend toward chaos, entropy, and randomness in your work—a sense of controlled sloppiness.

For example, if you’re feeling stuck on what to write, you can take a chance with a dictionary or a random word generator. In literature, there is a constrained writing movement called Oulipo. Several of their techniques are set by constraints and involve chance. For example, the N+7 technique involves creating a new poem through taking an existing poem and replacing each noun with the seventh noun after it in the dictionary. In the 1920s artistic movement Dada, a common game to manufacture inspiration involved cutting up newspapers and pulling words and sentences out of a bag.

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