Finding Inspiration Offline

I challenged myself to shut my phone off for two hours every day

by Logan Emser

The outcome? I failed miserably. But I came away from the experience with some insight on how looking away from the screen fuels my work.

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I traded the grassy hills of Ohio for the grit of New York almost three years ago. The city — with its symphony of sounds, packed crowds, and distinct smells — provides an abundance of visual stimulation. When I first made the move to the city, I was fascinated by the constantly moving parts: the distinct signage and dynamic advertising was bounds ahead of what I saw in the Midwest.

Admittedly, I’ve become somewhat desensitized to the stimuli of the city. I found myself entrenched in the Internet — perhaps you can blame that on the evolution of Tumblr, the current state of U.S. politics, or how well my friends use Instagram — either way, my phone gradually became the focus of my down-time. While designing, I constantly measured my work against the images and art that I was seeing online. I felt as though what I was producing was fabricated.

In an attempt to mitigate that feeling, this past January, I challenged myself to shut my phone off for two hours every day: the first hour when I wake up and second hour the minute I leave the office. It seemed asinine at first, but after thinking about how much time I actually spent on my mobile device, I was sure two hours less a day was a challenge worth accepting. So, for my New Year’s Resolution I decided to take the time I spent carelessly scrolling through my Instagram feed and instead invest that energy into finding inspiration off-screen.

The outcome? I failed miserably, but I came away from the experience with some insight on how looking away from the screen fuels my work:

1. Understanding my connection to and dependence on the screen

The ability to instantly browse Twitter and Instagram in the palm of my hand has negatively affected my workflow. It’s so easy to become addicted to constantly consuming new content. Although these platforms are a positive way to view exceptional work that’s being done in the industry, I often allow them to hijack my attention when designing. By eliminating this stimuli during certain parts of my day and using that time to sketch, interact with someone, or just think, I am learning to fight the urge of constantly consuming digital information.

2. Allowing physical exploration to fuel creativity

I found myself turning to my phone the moment I woke up, or even at red lights on my walk home. These are prime examples of times when I could instead gaze at unseen architecture or witness an unusual interaction in the making. Turning my phone off the moment I left work gave me an opportunity to intentionally take in inspiration from my surroundings.

Just try it. I challenge you to not look at your phone once on the way home from work today and see what you observe. The late Ellsworth Kelly said, “I’m constantly investigating nature — nature, meaning everything.” When I first moved to the city, I wasn’t only investigating nature, but I was taking in everything around me. I push myself to allow everyday observations to inform the work I do.

3. Finding my style

As a relatively young designer, I haven’t established my style just yet, and for the past few months, I’ve wondered if I ever will. Like so many of us in the design industry, I’ve developed an over-reliance on Dribbble that has become a part of my creative process. The vast amount of beautiful work is exciting, but it can also be overwhelming. Sure, the iconography is cool, and the one-off illustrations are stunning, but I can’t let that override my creative process and dictate what I make. By constantly comparing myself to other designers, I end up feeling like my work is inadequate. When you allow the things that other people do, see, and make to constantly influence what you do, see, and make, there is no longer the space for your own expression to come through. I’m still working on developing my style, but seeking inspiration offline has reinvigorated my personal design sense.

For better or worse, the Internet has an impact on the work we do. Look away from the screen. You might find more than just inspiration — you might even find yourself.

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