There’s never been a better time in history to search out and uncover creative inspiration. In fact, the internet is uniting us like never before: it’s giving us all information overload.
Regardless which professional field you’re in, access to (and accelerated growth of) online sources of ideas makes it even harder and more necessary to stay on top of trends, industry news, and more. With countless new articles, emails and social updates by the minute, it can get overwhelming keeping up with it all.
In fact, there’s enough great stuff shared every day that curation of this work has become a full-time job for some bloggers out there.
There is a struggle to keep the cup of inspiration full enough to create great handiwork without being overwhelmed. As a designer, I’ve been determined to welcome inspiration without it feeling like another task to get done. There are a lot of methods to manage this information and I may have tried them all, so in this post we’ll walk through the options I’ve explored.
Ironically, while technology is part of the problem, it’s also part of the solution. Along the way you might find the solution that works best for you, but in the end I do have my (current) personal solution, and it’s simpler than you might expect.
Ready to get inspired about inspiration? Let’s get meta.
Finding Your Inspiration
In Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From, he dissects innovation and the habits of creative people in an effort to identify patterns and environments where ideas flourish.
Johnson shares the story of Bills Gates, who plans annual reading vacations. Throughout the year, Gates collects books, articles, and anything he finds inspiring, then for a week or two he batch processes it all. “By compressing the intake into a matter of days, it gives new ideas additional opportunities to network among themselves, for the simple reason that it’s easier to remember something that you read yesterday than it is to remember something you read six months ago.”
“Chance favors the connected mind.” - Stephen Johnson
To get started, it’s worth jotting down what inspires you and the topics you want to stay informed upon. Don’t just think about who you are now. Think about who you want to be. What do you want to learn? Is there something you’d like to get better at? Are there any hobbies you’d like to explore?
Don’t let inspiration be exclusive to your day job, either. The best ideas often come from outside your industry. For me, as a designer, writer, manager, and human being with interests outside of work, the list gets quite long:
- UX 📲
- Visual Design 🖍
- Design Thinking 📚
- Leadership & Management 💼
- Space 🚀
- Current Events 🔖
- Music 🎧
- Live Shows 🎤
- Gadgets & Tech 📺
- Interior Design 🛋
- Minimal Living 💡
- Personal Growth 📊
I’m overwhelmed just looking at this list. The obvious first solution might be to eliminate some interests, but that negates the point of staying open to creative ideas. Rather, the solution lies in managing this input of information. Let’s dive into the different ways you can handle the flow by each channel you might use to find your next creative spark.
Bookmarks and Tabs
Why not just bookmark your favorite sites to a folder and launch them all? Or save your tabs to a Chrome extension like OneTab or Toby? This is great for firing up a bunch of inspiration sites to get visually stimulated without having too many browser tabs to deal with.
So many sources can make it all feel like too much! It’s a great way to get quickly visually inspired, but not for consuming thoughtful and curated content.
New Tab Extensions
While this is a rad presentation of content, it can be distracting when doing focus work. I find myself losing my train of thought every time I hit Command-T. Instead, I opt for Earth View from Google Earth as my new tab.
Pro Tip: So that you don’t lose the benefit of these tools, consider removing the Chrome extension and simply visit the web-based version of Panda.
Enter Reeder, Flipboard, and Feedly. These products save the day for hardcore blog consumers. Add an RSS feed to these tools and you’ll get every new post delivered to your RSS inbox. You can use categories to manage the topics, and even see what’s most popular. Reeder and Flipboard used to be the go-to for this approach, but Feedly has held the recent throne. Feedly can be viewed from any browser and also has a native app, which has offline features so you can save an article and read it without an internet connection.
It’s another inbox. And although it’s nice to filter for the most popular content, you might miss something of quality simply because the readership was low. If left unattended, you can visit an RSS reader after a few days and easily see over 1,000 new articles. Where do you even start? It also becomes hard to scroll through the headline, stop and read, then scroll more. For me, it felt like I was trying to clear the inbox and I was missing the value of the content.
Reading it Later
Find now, read later. This is a magical solution. Evernote started out as the go-to tool for this approach, then came Instapaper. My current favorite is Pocket, which has gained a huge following in the past few years (because of its recommendation engine and beautiful design). The RSS readers mentioned above have integrations with these tools.
Pro Tip: My recommended approach here is very deliberate. Use an RSS reader to scroll through the headlines and decide what you want to read. When you find something of interest, save it to Pocket (or your tool of choice). Each tool strips away the clutter and styles the articles into a clean, readable format for later consumption.
Sometimes I find myself going through Feedly, saving a bunch of articles to Pocket, and feeling satisfied having cleared the unreads without actually reading anything. I realized I am spending more time curating than I am reading! I often find myself getting busy throughout the week and forget about Pocket, then a few days later I’m back at Feedly curating again.
Social Media Aggregators
For those who love social media, there are tools to help. Apps like Tweetdeck allow users to monitor trends, keywords, Twitter lists, and more. The information is constant. If you are in need of immediate inspiration, social media is there for you. Always.
I repeat, the information is constant. So it can be very hard to sift through the clutter to find something useful. Twitter has done a nice job of the “In case you missed it” section, and they’ve also introduced an email digest of “Activity from your network.” But it’s still quite easy to miss something inspiring if you aren’t there to see it the moment that it’s shared.
When e-newsletters first arrived, they became a daily or weekly option for readers, as they could sit back and wait for their arrival.
Talk about overload. It became hard to decipher the signal from the noise. Email is a communication tool, so it was difficult to scroll through the inbox to see what required a response and what was passive information that could be consumed at any time. Enter a solution to this problem…
Unroll.me is a great service that collects all of your newsletters and batch delivers them to you in a daily digest called The Rollup. You can also visit the web app for an easier reading experience outside of the inbox.
For some things, a daily digest is perfect. For other sources of information, you may prefer less frequent communication. Additionally, the Rollup includes everything from that day, so it can still be a bit overwhelming as the eyes scan and see so many different topics and contexts. I wanted more deliberate focus on the topics I was consuming so the search for the perfect solution continued…
I noticed something in my quest to find the right solution for design inspiration and quality information. Blogs have always had newsletter signups, but now the inspiration sites were following suit. This is a trend for long and short form blogs, design inspiration sites, news sites, and more. The frequency of those newsletters has changed, too. Instead of daily blasts with everything on their site, newsletter curators have learned that people feel overwhelmed, so most currently give the user a weekly digest of only the most curated, quality finds from the week.
Pro Tip: If a blog you love doesn’t have an e-newsletter, there’s an IFTTT Applet for that. It won’t give you a weekly curated hit list, but it will deliver the article to your inbox whenever it’s published.
It was a similar problem I had with Unroll.me. While in the middle of working, a random newsletter would arrive. It would fall in the middle of important emails and add to the inbox noise. Additionally, some newsletters still arrived daily and I didn’t want that level of frequency. There’s a solution for this…
Curated Newsletters + Inbox by Google
This is my current workflow for staying creatively inspired, productive, and free of distraction:
- Sign up for newsletters, both from inspiration sites and information sites. If there’s a daily or weekly option, choose weekly.
- Setup Inbox by Gmail. If you don’t use it yet, you’re missing out. It’s the best answer to the email problem so far. Inbox has a wonderful feature called bundling, where you can choose when specific emails arrive.(Editor's note: It works with Trello notifications too!) I use the “once a week” feature, meaning that on Monday, the most quality inspiration and information from the week prior shows up nicely bundled in my inbox. Sure, it’s a few days after the initial publish date of the content, but I didn’t spend all week trying to find it. It came to me in one neat little package.
- Be sure to bundle by topic. For example, keep visual design inspiration separate from articles about design thinking. I haven’t explored this yet, but another combination of solutions could be to use Unroll.me and then bundle the Rollups with Inbox.
- Spend time scanning the visual design examples and reading through the interesting posts. The decision process on what to read is simplified. Curators send me the good stuff, so I only have to choose from a handful of things, not thousands.
I love this option and have not missed anything too important. I might find out about it a day or week later, but I’m okay with that. Because during that time I was making stuff to inspire others!
Outsourcing Inspiration Curation
Unless it’s your job to curate and share information and inspiration (or you really love searching for cool stuff), don’t spend your time doing it. Outsource that task to the people who do it for a living, and trust that the good stuff will come to you.
And don’t worry about knowing about it that minute, that hour, or even that day. Trends happen fast but you’re not going to be out of the loop if it hits your inbox a few days later. And if it did happen so fast that you missed it, it probably wasn’t worth knowing about anyway.
I’ve been using this solution for all of 2017 and I’ve never been more inspired, informed, productive, and peaceful. I encourage you to try any of the solutions above and see what works for you.
I hope this inspires you to be inspired. Now stop reading and make something inspirational!
P.S. Contact me if you’re curious about what newsletters I subscribe to for creative inspiration!