Much is made of the need for inspiration in design work. While most of a designer’s job is sweating the details, we all still need that little spark to get us going. We need (or at least enjoy having) that one initial idea or concept to get us started on the path to design greatness.
And so we binge. We read articles that show off cool things other people have designed, watch videos of new and innovative products being unveiled, and generally seek that spark. The only problem with this process is that in our haste to be inspired, our good ideas can sometimes be obscured by everything else that’s already in our brains.
Unless things have gone very wrong, our thoughts generally don’t happen in a vacuum. Our minds are filled to the brim with our daily tasks, our relationships, and most importantly in this article, everything we already know about design. It’s like eating foods of drastically different flavors, one after the other: the flavor of the first dish will affect the flavor of the second. Jumping from one design project to the next will affect how the second one plays out.
People who eat for fun and profit use palate cleansers to help them more easily distinguish between flavors. We can use this same principle in the world of design to clear our heads a bit, and allow new ideas to fully reveal themselves.
The most common type of palate cleanser is the one with the most neutral flavor possible, which is used to sort of reset the taste buds. Think “white bread”.
In design, this idea might translate as getting back to basics. Go browse a corporate website or two. Look at stuff that’s simple and calming, but which also reinforces the most basic of design principles. Give your mind a nearly-blank canvas on which to project its wilder ideas.
Now I say nearly-blank, because even white bread has a flavor, even if it’s not much of one. This approach is not about completely emptying your mind so much as just mentally going back over your fundamentals.
Others take the exact opposite approach to cleansing their palate by assaulting the senses until they withdraw as a means of self defense. In some sushi restaurants, they’ll give you some ginger for pretty much this exact purpose. Other people just use really dark beer.
In some ways, brutalist design has served this function. Others have gone far beyond brutalism, however, by building the ugliest pages they could*, complete with all the worst bits and bobs the late ’90s had to offer. Staring at these sites is enough to make nearly anyone’s mind blank itself out for a bit. If nothing else, browsing sites like that will make you thankful for what we have now.
*Screenshot intentionally not provided. Click at your own risk.
Sometimes, the best way is to simply let your taste buds and your stomach rest. The same goes for your brain. I will never stop extolling the virtues of time off. I know I’ve mentioned it in at least one or two other articles here on WDD, but it needs to be reiterated ad nauseum in this age of the workaholic.
Rest. Your. Brain. Think about literally anything else for a while. A rested brain can be the difference between repeatedly running into walls, and having everything finally click into place.
When you’re eating spicy food, milk and sometimes bread are recommended as palate cleansers. This is not for their neutral flavor, but because they actually absorb the spicy chemicals a bit, literally taking them off your tongue.
(Incidentally, this is a great tip for when you buy quesadillas from a little old lady in Mexico, and she doesn’t tell you that the salsa is made with habanero peppers. So keep that in mind.)
In a design context, one of the best ways to sponge stuff out of your brain is to get another brain involved. The same way talking out our emotional problems can give immense relief, talking about your design work to someone can help leave some space for new ideas. It doesn’t even have to be a real brain. Programmers sometimes use rubber ducks in a similar way to help them troubleshoot code. I’m not joking, it’s a thing.
This section is where the food analogy fails me, I’m afraid. That’s because I want to talk about meditation, and meditation isn’t just doing something else, or “not eating”. It’s sort of a very intentional way of doing nothing.** Yeah, I’m going to massively oversimplify things in this section.
Whether you use transcendental meditation (focusing on one very specific thing), or Zen meditation (refusing to focus on anything, which is far easier for my ADD-addled brain), or some other form, meditative rituals can do a lot to open up space for new ideas. Unlike taking significant time off, meditation can be done just about any time, and with practice, just about anywhere.
You don’t need to meditate for long to get some benefit from it either. A few minutes of breathing deeply in a quiet state of mind can be enough to quiet the incessant input from the world around you, and from your own thoughts. You’re not looking for nirvana, after all. You just need a little bit of empty space in your brain, and that’s a lot easier to achieve.
**The closest analogue to intentionally not eating is fasting. Though the practice does have spiritual significance in many cultures, I don’t think the analogy works here.