It's not always easy to keep a constant flow of inspiration going throughout the design process. However, attempting to do so not only benefits the final results but makes the whole process much more enjoyable for everyone involved. Hopefully the creative spark will appear at design square one so, when a brief arrives, read and understand it, and mull the idea around for as long as possible before starting the job. If previous projects covered similar ground, or you've seen comparable jobs elsewhere, analyse what worked and what didn't so you're able to deliver something relevant but new. Compile mood boards of relevant cuttings, words and imagery to spark ideas. Always have a pen and pocket sketchbook handy to note down thoughts that come to mind. Even if these become irrelevant, store them - they might prove useful for a later jumping-off point.
Many heads are better than one, so if you're studio-based have an internal meeting. "Bouncing ideas around is like a potter moulding clay into something recognisable that's usually far from a complete concept but good at providing a general direction," reckons Wyld Stallyons' Jason Arber. He believes that when personal agendas are cast aside, ideas come and go in a kind of 'survival of the fittest manner' - so ditch egos and never dismiss ideas out of hand. Digital Outlook's Eugene Reisch agrees, adding: "Recognise that some people generate ideas from scratch, but others prefer making existing concepts more tangible."
If you're working solo, however, work fast and don't think too much - use sketchbooks to get ideas down quickly. And, when struggling, don't force ideas; instead, temporarily put a project on hold and work on something else. Projects often then inform each other.
Back to basics
Computers aren't everything - screens don't provide solutions if you stare at them for long enough. Wrench yourself free and investigate relevant media and forms of expression. "When designing Faber & Faber's website, we wanted it to reflect the company's print and design heritage, making it literally 'about the books'," says Lateral's Simon Crab. "We abandoned computer design techniques and worked in a Letterpress studio, experimenting with typefaces and colour overprinting. This informed the final design and we created handmade elements not achievable using computers."
Design books can also shift you from the screen, show how problems were solved, highlight interesting techniques and inspire ideas - for designers, visual stimuli provide more sparks than abstract written concepts. But, to resist the temptation to rip work off because you're lacking inspiration for a looming deadline, make sure you only idle through books when you've no pressing cut-off dates. "Let vague memories of several indistinct inspirations blend together to create something new," says Jason Arber.
Design books, of course, can be expensive and date quickly, so build collections outside of cutting-edge monographs. Seek out cheaper, older tomes on vintage design and as broad as possible a range of other subjects.
Technology has its place for sparking the creative process, particularly when it comes to storage. Create an accessible digital library by synchronising bookmarks across your computers and handheld devices, making interesting items viewable wherever you are. On your computer, store photos for inspiration and textures for future use. Packages such as iPhoto can be used to tag and search imagery rapidly and sync favourites with mobile devices.
Make use of online services, such as ffffound.com and Delicious, to store and categorise work. "You can set up categories to distil other people's tags, and round up popular links from relevant subjects," says Eugene Reisch. Research Studios' Nick Hard also finds sites such as these a bursting creative resource that, "can form the basis of creative inspiration and inspire new directions."
When you come to the end of a project, don't confine it to the archives - use older works to inform and inspire the new ones. Print items and stick them on the wall so they're in plain view; flip through old sketches while working; and dip into what Jason Arber calls the "mental bag of ideas you carry around. I'm constantly thinking of new techniques and ideas, and occasionally one matches the brief in front of me," he says. "I never foist a personal concept into a brief that doesn't support it, but sometimes you have a 'Eureka!' moment and realise one of your crazy ideas is the perfect answer.
Voices of inspiration
The crucial food for the top designers' creative thought
'"A4 paper's my most important resource, because it brings out natural creativity and scans well. Too many people mimic others, but if more started with a blank sheet original ideas would flow."
Ben O'Brien, illustrator
"I love having a sketchbook handy. I'm a terrible draftsman but pen and paper is a great way of throwing an idea down. Even if something's rough, it's easier to visualise and explore."
Eugene Reisch, senior art director, Digital Outlook
"I consider my workspace a resource - I'm surrounded by books, comics and toys. While I'm not actively flipping through books for ideas, this helps create a relaxed atmosphere to work in. Also, rows of items might spark ideas for colour schemes."
Tom Muller, designer, Kleber Design Ltd and (hello)Muller
"Our creative plan is my favoured resource. It goes hand in hand with our business plan and provides goals, targets and objectives for maintaining and improving creative standards and keeping creative juices flowing."
Ed Templeton, creative director, Red Design
"I'd choose my blog - crab.wordpress.com. I write about everything but design, which gives me the luxury to think about abstract ideas with no deadlines and nobody to please but myself."
Simon Crab, creative director, Lateral