Going Global for Inspiration: Unfamiliar Spaces Yield a Fresh Design Perspective

design perspective

A Design Perspective on Finding New Inspiration

As a designer working at a fast-paced agency, it’s easy to feel tethered to the computer. It’s easy to get stuck in the same patterns of designing, looking at the same sources of inspiration, and working from the same perspective each time. But what many people forget about is the value of altering your surroundings – seeing something new, changing your pace, looking elsewhere for inspiration, or just widening your lens of seeing. Being truly creative, inspired, and innovative – as the top designers, business leaders, and brands today need to be – hinges on being able to see something from a new perspective.

People seek to shake up the way they see things in different ways. For me, traveling is where this happens. It gives me the opportunity to see things with a fresh perspective. There’s something about a foreign environment that stimulates the mind’s eye. Even the most ordinary things seem interesting. The simplest things delight and inspire.

Recently, I was lucky enough to take a month-long trip to Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and Japan. This trip reminded me of the unparalleled, unique value of travel. And after four weeks of diverse experiences, I was able to return to my work with renewed energy, creative spirit, and untried inspirations. The things I observed and absorbed while traveling will inform my understanding of design moving forward. Here are some I want to share from you.

Finding and Embracing Juxtaposition

Throughout my travels, I noticed that often the most striking and interesting experiences arose when traditional culture clashed with the modern. The night markets in every major city or town we went to would all sell the same souvenirs: T-shirts, keychains, and knickknacks all of the same “design”. The sameness made it all a blur – nothing stood out.

And when we visited more remote villages and towns, the markets sold culturally-linked traditional items that felt unfamiliar. For instance, at a hill tribe in Northern Thailand, there was a beautiful market that sold traditional clothing and handicrafts. The colors and patterns were vibrant, the fabric was high-quality, and the design looked tribal in its aesthetic. I found myself admiring them from a distance, but they didn’t feel like things I would wear back home. They weren’t accessible in the modern world.

But then, occasionally, we would encounter something that was the perfect juxtaposition between old and new, traditional and modern. The juxtaposition would allow the local culture to be more accessible to us. Or it would remind us that even the most modern places are stepped in a beautiful history. The contrast made my appreciation for both the old and new increase.

Old Meets New

In Bangkok, we stumbled upon a hole-in-the-wall bar, hidden in an alleyway in Chinatown and tucked away from the normal foot traffic. All the traditional elements – the ornamental decor, the hanging mobile that transported order sheets to and from the second floor, the old-school menus, the reservation cards made of banana leaf – all worked harmoniously within a modern, industrial space filled with contemporary light fixtures. The cocktails were also composed of juxtaposing element: a modern twist on Thai herbal liquors, all served in traditional cups, to be sipped with a live band playing Thai music with traditional instruments in the background. For me, it transported me away from the museum-like experience that often comes with learning a new culture, and made the whole experience more unique, more intriguing, and more tangible.

In Okinawa, we went to two pottery villages. Most craftsmen created pottery with the same technique that been handed down the from generation to generation. There was a lot of historical sentiment connected to the work and a beauty that rang true with the heritage of it. But, in the end, the pottery we ended up buying were the pieces that were built with a modern twist – made in traditional clay, but with an asymmetrical color composition or bold graphic patterns. The store we purchased the pieces from seemed to be thriving because the craftsmen were using traditional methods, but also looking towards the future. And this made them groundbreaking and unique. They stood out to the passersby and gave a taste of what was, what is, and what’s to come from Japan’s ceramic artists.

Inspiration Isn’t Always Planned

My travels reminded me that inspiration often comes from the most unexpected places or in the most surprising of forms. We did a lot of research on must-visit spots and must-try restaurants before taking off on our trip. But when we actually saw and tried these highly anticipated spots, the experiences oftentimes fell flat. They weren’t as inspiring as we thought they would be. Instead, the real gems of the trip were those we discovered and happened upon mostly by chance – by exploring, taking an unplanned detour, going on a different route, or noticing something that just caught our eye. It was these spots that delighted and surprised us the most.

In the old market area in Siem Reap, Cambodia, we stumbled upon stores with beautiful old cement tiles arranged on their floors. The patterns were surprisingly modern with bold geometric shapes that caught my eye. In a hip district in Chiang Mai, Thailand, we were delighted to discover a few striking clothing stores and coffee shops – some with elaborate graffiti that made the stores come alive and others with oversized cartoon sculptures greeting patrons in the front. We were so charmed by the district that we decided to extend our stay there another night.

Wonder in the Unexpected  

A lot of sameness happens in design. Brands look and feel the same and have a hard time differentiating themselves in crowded marketplaces. This is a real problem for businesses looking to say something different and stand out. For instance, there is a homogeneity happening in the interactive world today. Flat design is all the rage now and before that it was skeuomorphism. This is because it’s easy to latch onto trends. The always-there internet, influx of design blogs, and wide accessibility to things happening in the industry make it easy to imitate without even knowing it. Sometimes, when you pull back, it seems everyone is “inspired” by the same work. Everyone thinks the same designs are “cool.”

I remember one of my teachers saying: “Surprise yourself when looking for inspirations. When you start on a packaging project, look at fashion for inspiration.” This was valuable advice that I was reminded of on my trip. If we keep looking at things in the same places and space, we become numbed by the visuals. It gets hard to gain any real insights or create anything different or new. That’s why brands that are designed to take people by surprise and make people delight in something new and unexpected often find success.

Looking Somewhere Different

It’s easy to look to the internet and what people are creating in our own bubbles for “inspiration.” But that’s not where originality happens. You have to go to unexpected places. You have to explore. You have to take a risk. Flip something. Put two elements that have never been in the same room together. You have to be willing to be surprised, to learn something new, to look both forward and backward.

You have to use what you notice in the world around you – everyday patterns, people, new cultures, different geography – to inform your own work. The world is so big, there should never be a lack of inspiration. There are always going to be new things to see or gain creative energy from. Simply trying to widen your lens of seeing is of great value to anyone who is trying to stay creative, innovative, and inspired. I turned to travel to spark something new in my brain and set my designs on a new path. What do you turn to?

Share your thoughts on how you get inspired with us and look out for more posts about staying inspired and creative from our team.

Emotive Brand is a brand strategy and design agency.



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