What is your inspiration?

3 August 2013

I often get interview requests from students. Most of the questions are pretty standard and answerable, but the dreaded “What is your inspiration?” is also guaranteed to be in there. This is a hard question to answer. It always seems like they’re expecting a magic bullet: directions to a hidden wellspring of creative juice from which they, too, can draw profitable inspiration. Up until now my typical answer has been “the mortgage, and deadlines”.


But that’s getting old. It’s an unhelpful, glib response to a genuine, perennial question. I’ve given some thought to what my inspiration actually is, and I’m finally going to attempt to answer this question properly.

Firstly, it’s very important to distinguish between inspiration and motivation. Mortgages and deadlines don’t provide anyone (except, perhaps, bankers) with any inspiration, but they are excellent motivators. It’s easy to conflate the two—there is a definite overlap—but they are largely separate things. Motivations are pragmatic: they involve time, money or need. There is limited time to get things done, and there is a need for real money to live.

There is no scene to set for inspiration. I suspect that the more actively I looked, the more elusive inspiration would become. So I don’t look. I’ve never sat in a spring meadow with the sun on my face and recited poetry to prepare for the “eureka!” lightning bolt. I’ve never eaten a delicious meal, attended a concert, or visited an art gallery and felt immediately inspired to draw a new typeface. To me, inspiration is primarily aesthetic. And it mostly comes from work.

John Cage sums it up thus:

I think people who are not artists often feel that artists are inspired. But if you work at your art you don’t have time to be inspired. Out of the work comes the work.

I draw new letterforms for a living. Part of this requires research, such as browsing through old type specimens. I’ll look at the same specimen book multiple times and always see something new; however, I’m careful not to look with the specific intent of being inspired. I don’t expect to be inspired but it’s nice when I am. Founders Grotesk is the product of this kind of unsolicited inspiration. My good mate Duncan was flicking through an old specimen and he noticed something that piqued both his interest and mine. We weren’t really seeking inspiration—it simply happened.

Metric was inspired by West Berlin street signs and motivated by the desire to launch it at TYPO Berlin. Tiempos Text was inspired by the functionality of Times and motivated by client need. Pitch was inspired by the aesthetic of typewritten text and motivated by the need to use it for my own specimens.

Inspiration is the very small spark that gets me cracking, but motivation will get me over the line.

Work = inspiration + motivation.

I derive immense pleasure from drawing letters. I also derive immense satisfaction from seeing them used well. I cannot tell if that is inspiration or motivation, but I suspect it’s a little bit of both.

Remember: “When you can’t create you can work.