Thoughts on Creative Inspiration

How being inspired operates and keeps us moving forward

Inspiration is such an abstract concept that it’s sometimes hard to pin down and really make sense of. How does inspiration really function for a creative person? To this end, I have tried to make sense of how my creative brain interprets what has and continues to inspire me and how it translates into making and thinking.

Inspiration is a tricky ingredient but crucial to keeping us fresh, alive and growing as creatives. In the process of thinking this through, I can’t help but mention a bunch of people and things I admire so my apologies beforehand if it gets a little gratuitous. No way around it!

To start, our inspirations are to some degree defined by our place and time in the world. It’s the reason abstract expressionist were really into jazz music or why bands in the 60’s loved Yogis and eastern philosophy. A certain place and certain time equals a certain cultural inspiration.

For me, I’m a child of the 1970’s, a kid and teen of the 1980’s, young adult of the 1990’s / 2000s and me now for whatever you call the chaos we live in currently. Over the course of growing up and learning you bump into cultural things that just seem to stick with you. This could be a song, an album cover, an artist or any number of things that inspire you deeply. When you are young inspiration is manifest as a visceral connection. You don’t overthink it. It just speaks to you and you are drawn to it on an emotional level.

I remember being 12 or 13 and seeing Thrasher Magazine for the first time. It blew my mind. The Jeff Phillips Breakout deck, the first Rob Roskopp Target deck and the Vision Gonz deck are forever etched in my brain as benchmarks of what graphics should be measured by. They were just 1000% rad. At the time, this same level of visceral connection and feeling also came from music. The music of Verbal Assault, Rights of Spring, Swiz and Fugazi seemed to still rise above the rest for me for some reason. Like the select few skate graphics I loved, the music of these bands never seemed to get old. I was able to return to them over and over and find something in them. Comfort. Joy. Escape. And more than anything, an intense wonder about how anyone could make something so amazing.

At a certain point, I went from liking or loving something intuitively to wanting to really understand it. As a creative person, you start to want to pick things apart, to figure out how they work. All of those boring critiques in art school were designed to get you thinking ”Why” about the foundational aspects of art. For me, the classroom was also the skate shop, the alternative bookstore and the local record store. Pouring over articles and ads in Thrasher as well as all the stuff in Maximum Rock and Roll and Punk Planet were the places where I could learn about the larger context for the things I was naturally drawn to. Going to shows, writing bands, making punk pens pals and doing zines became a way of closing the distance between the natural wonder and stoked-ness I had for all of these creative things I was finding and experiencing to actually being a part of them. The more I participated in the music and skate culture that inspired me, the more I realized and wanted to make things too. After countless fliers, silk screened shirts and primitive scrawls on book covers I eventually found graphic design.

Thinking back over the last several decades, I can see the breadcrumbs of my personal inspiration that have been left behind. All of the skate art of Jim Phillips and V Cortland Johnson as well as the majority of the graphic design from the Dischord catalogue of the late 80’s and early 90’s are the foundation. As I progressed into my late teens and early 20’s it became things that I was exposed to in design school in the early 90’s pre internet world — Peter Saville, the Cranbook the New Discourse book, Transworld during the GSD era and many others. It was this collision of the punk rock / skate economy and the commercial economy of graphic design that became the inspirational melting pot that set the stage, good or bad, for my personal worldview.

For those folks that have known me and have worked with me over the years, they know I love to learn how to do new things and I like to be able to see the connection between all of the links in the chain from idea to finished product. This is because I grew up with inspirations that gave me a belief system that supports this way of working. The Big Boys taught me I could start a band, Dischord taught me I could put out records (and run a business), Santa Cruz Skateboards taught me that art can be “graphic” and personal heroes like Neil Blender showed me that doing your own thing was also cool. These inspirations were compounded by being part of the first era of students that used a Mac for graphic design. I actually owned my own computer and made real things with it before the internet existed. I was one of the first generation that could use a computer for self generated creative cultural production without the need to be part of a company or have a ton of money. Its seems really novel now but its was a big deal then and a very unique moment in time where one era was ending and another was beginning.

Like your childhood diet, as your grow older you acquire a more sophisticated inspirational palette. My exposure to The Nation of Ulysses, the paintings and photography of Ed Ruscha and the writing of Dick Hebdige gave me a cerebral upgrade in the what I qualified as amazing department. I began to understand that idiosyncrasy and individualism were the hallmarks of creativity and that the visual and verbal manifestation of the things that inspired me, just like a hard to find seven inch single, had a nuanced backstory that was as rich as the visceral experience of the artifact itself.

The worst thing you can do as an adult is hold onto your childhood inspirations too tightly. If you keep your high school haircut for your entire life at some point you will look like an idiot. The same goes for your inspirations. In my work life, the things that inspire me most are the people and things right in front of me that are happening in culture at this very moment. Some of my current inspirations are totally mass market and some are more obscure. Unlike the past, at this point in time there is no real delineation between high and low, mass market or fringe. It’s all one soup being stirred around in social media.

Like a Dan Higgs tattoo or Nervous Circuits by The VSS, there was a time in my 20’s when I prided myself on the obscurity of my inspirations. For many years I thought the things that inspired me had to be hard to find, weird or underground. My thinking at the time was that anyone could be inspired by the Bauhaus, The Eames, or even brands like Supreme because they were easy to get exposed to and as a result are sort of baseline. Over time I came to realize that the idiosyncrasy and obscurity of your inspirations may make you feel superior or like you are in on a cool secret but ultimately everything is equally relevant, rich and meaningful. If anything, one’s ability to connect and appreciate high and low, underground and mass market just makes you a stronger creative person. You have to embrace it all and be open to letting things in. To narrow your inspirational field of vision too much is to deny yourself a better view of how everything interrelates.

As an example, the folks at the office know I have a great affection for the Gestalt that is Post Malone. I love that he crosses so many genres and the fact that a 23 year old nerdy dude from Grapevine Texas with face tattoos can blow up on the internet with White Iverson and then in a blink of an eye be playing Madison Square Garden while also being totally listenable at an 8 year old roller skate birthday party. It’s an impressive feat of malleability. Absurd and totally genius in one package. Malone is definitely an iconic avatar for our cultural moment just like MJ, Kurt or Eminem was in the past. From phenomena like Fortnight to the music of Billie Eilish, I think it is good to know what “now’ looks like and why it inspires people even if it’s not intended for someone like me.

From a design and making perspective, I currently I love the work of Hassan Rahim, Sara De Bondt, Jeremy Dean, Young Jerks, Cody Hudson, A Practice of Everyday Life, the pastels of Garrett Morin, the tattoos of Zack Denis and the brand work of Jody Hudson-Powell among many other things like Mike Giant and Cleon Peterson. All of these talents are very different yet all of them inspire me in specific ways and for specific reasons.

Thinking more deeply, I can try to articulate what I see in this work that is inspiring. On one level it is the craft of the work and the aesthetic. On another level, I know that beneath the work I see another kind of labor. To do things well requires effort, hardship and sacrifice. You have to sit there and muster the self-will to not only create something, but to share it with others and then do it again and again. This individual drive is deeply inspiring to me because I know how hard it is.

Personally, I merely see myself as a life-long novice wanting to find my version of what those that inspire me already have. There is an intangible uniqueness that comes from perpetual effort. It is a difficult thing to pin down and I know that everyone that inspires me is in some way struggling with their inner will, the craft of the work and the solace and fulfillment they find through the process.

In the most simple terms, being inspired by others pushes you forward in your own work. You may try to emulate or imitate someone in an effort to understand or dissect something and that’s ok. In the process you are also finding your own way and your own process. Over the years I have looked to many people’s work to both try to understand it and attempt to master aspects of what I have seen in the work. For example Alex Trochut’s type work has been very inspiring for how he has been able to take typography to new places through both formal complexity and 3D. There is a craft there that feels like a logical evolution of the work of Lubalin, Peckolick and DiSpigna in the 70’s on some level but his work is totally his own and achieves an incredible variety in style.

Not having one style has been the largest personal struggle for me. I’ve never had one ‘thing’ to call my own. My process has always been a focused exploration around a certain visual challenge that once I feel like I have a handle on it, I move on to a new challenge. I occasionally come back to formal things but I often build a little body of work around an idea, get it to the visual and craft level I am happy with and then look to something new. As a designer, this process has allowed me to evolve as trends come and go and has helped me stay relevant and productive in my own design practice. I’m not sure why, but for me it has been about having a kind of neverending restlessness. I’m always the most excited when I’m trying to figure something out. Not everyone is naturally wired to build a cohesive body of work that is formally identifiable and I have had to come to peace with this within my own work.

In contrast, most of the folks I continue to revisit and be inspired by creatively do have an overall style that is identifiable to them. I look at Chris Ware, Greg Lamarche, Stephen Powers, Robert Ryan, Travis Millard, Dan Funderburgh, LAND and many others as a kind of benchmark for what it means to have your own signature thing dialed in that others value. I realize that focusing on an ownable style opens up another series of challenges from an economic perspective. For an illustrator or an artist your signature visual language becomes the cultural capital that you use to make work and sell work. The ideal state is that people want your style of work and you can survive off of that. This can be amazing if you have a visual voice that has staying power. But just like The Gonz, all of us are also not going to be Goeff McFetridge. Not everyone has the same fortitude, talent and cultural circumstances to build their own skill and vocabulary and stay the course. This is not to say the work I have done and others have done that do not fit the “cohesive style” model is not valuable. It’s just harder to pin down.

As I have grown older, I still seek out formal inspiration but I also look for inspiration in a more holistic way that encompasses not just what one creates as a formal artifact but how one creates in the broader sense of the term. Marc Shillum has been inspiring to me lately for his ability to write about design and brand in a way that resonates with my day to day practice. The folks at Instrument are a huge inspiration for me now because they have built a business that I very much admire and I know they are similar to me in background and ideology.

The inspiration they spark in me goes beyond the work itself to the larger system they have created. Assembling all the moving parts of a business is tough enough but Instrument have been able to create a business that means something, that people respect and whose work is a benchmark in our field. I’m proud of them because through their example they in some ways show me that I can reach that level. Just like the individual creative struggle, the struggle to run an amazing business is just as painful and daunting.

Looking to the future, I think inspiration should always be a fluid ingredient in the creative process. Personally, I will always return to things that are just universally good like the work of The Experimental JetSet, but for me the old and the new have equal value and it is up to each of us to have the curiosity to dig deeper and to learn and see more. Right now I’m happy that bands like Tropical Fuck Storm exist as much as I appreciate Springsteen’s Western Stars. Muddguts and MoMa are on an equal playing field for me. All great in very different ways. When it comes to creative inspiration, I’m more excited now than I have ever been because I have so much more mental and creative information that I can cross reference and connect. The more you know, the richer creative work becomes. My biggest inspiration of all has always been my twin brother Mark Owens. He remains hands down one of the most talented, funny and intelligent people I know because he has been able to do creative things I’ve never been able to do in ways that always surprise me and push me to see things from new perspectives.

Creative and Project Leader, Partner at Athletics