February 14, 2024
6 minute read time

Fueling Your Creative Momentum Through Collecting

Rocky Alli
Photos by
Illustrations by

We tend to expect that the general interest of creativity is originality: the original exploration of ideas, original processes and original works. Like any other skill, it would make sense to apply a larger amount of personal time and creative effort to grow our potential to be original and creative.

But interestingly, in my growing conversations with different industry creatives, a thread arises: as the industry grows, the pressure to create and to be original grows, even if it is unclear what that actually entails. Younger creatives self-develop their practice but often, the process can feel directionless and counterproductive to creative confidence. They struggle to find their consistent creative identity and style in an industry that is constantly evolving. Experienced designers who lead incredible creative projects face the unique pressures of navigating ideas and team dynamics without any manual or course on the subject.

In an industry where many are genuinely interested in finding their creative potential, how come it feels that more of us, both young and experienced, are grasping at straws about how to hone it?

Perhaps the conversation about creativity has been oversimplified. History books, college courses and news spotlight the creative risks – the movement makers, the young prodigies, the lucky breaks – because like creativity, they exist outside of the norm and are worth talking about. It leaves other creative stories, the less newsworthy stories, undiscovered and unempowered.

Still, there’s tremendous hope for anyone reading this because people take notice of new and interesting (creative) ideas. My difference: no one said you have to start big. Perhaps there’s a more universal way to create more confidently, a more self-forgiving way, and you’re probably already doing it. And that is, to collect.

What do I mean when I say “collect”? Let me expound: Before any profound work is made, all creative thinkers are the sum of their collected inspiration. I know, it's counterintuitive to think that the secret to becoming more creative is through the creativity of others. But I noticed this pattern of collecting by watching graphic design talks by George Lois, Milton Glaser, Paula Scher and Michael Bierut. Whenever they would talk about the process behind their own work, they would discuss their collected inspiration in incredible detail – the name of the referenced pieces, the artists who made it, the year it was made if they knew it, what they liked about the work, the details behind the technique, etc. – as if they collected that work as part of their own collection.

It mirrors the fundamental principle of collages: collecting images, while it starts as a simple act, can become a profound creative impact with time, imitative practice and deep analysis.

All creatives begin by finding inspiration. All thinkers start by defining their mental collages: anecdotes, studies and frameworks from other authors.

Even the greatest creative minds in human history talk about it:

“Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing.”

– Salvador Dali, father of Surrealism Art.

“Good artists copy. Great artists steal.”

– Picasso, creator of the Cubism art movement.

“Creativity is about knowing how to hide your sources.”

– Albert Einstein, Nobel Prize Winner for his Theory of Relativity

“Every idea is a juxtaposition of existing concepts.”

— Steve Grant, Marvel Comic Book Writer

Collecting is important because it brings the creative process back to where all creators start: the essential desire to put things together to make something beautiful. It alleviates the pressure to be creatively original all the time and shifts the emphasis to being creatively valuable.

Creating a collection also has a much clearer aim to it (organizing and grouping ideas, deepening techniques, finding art direction principles) in contrast to the chaos of our powerful imagination and our changing originality. It’s worth clarifying that simply saving or stealing inspiration won’t cut it! Do something creative with your collection of inspiration because that’s where your creativity starts and your originality can grow.

How can you apply collecting in a practical way to improve your own creativity? You can apply this to any medium: graphic design, illustration, fine art, production and animation, copywriting, business strategy. As long as you can reference other contributions in the field, you can collect pieces and techniques along the way.

As an example: if you’re a logo designer, don’t waste your time creating 10,000 original logos. If you’re a real collector, collect from the best and learn from the best. Collect the 10 best logos in the world and make a collage so that you can learn something that will really make a difference in your logo design practice:

Why do people consider these as the best logos? What makes the selected logos the same? What makes them different? What techniques do you know or not know? If I can learn one thing about how to improve my logos, what is one takeaway that I can apply?

And now, unlike before, you understand why it works. You understand how it was made. You understand what you’re good at and where you can improve. So, collect again to inform your next step.

Harvard Business Review writes that inspiration can be thought of as the play between “your current knowledge and the information that you receive from the rest of the world,” which is essentially creative collection manifested in these conditions:

  1. Your knowledge is valuable but limited.
  2. You retain the things that are the most valuable to you. The rest, you just don’t have the space for – and that’s ok because you can learn it later.
  3. You can collect ideas from the world.
  4. The world is much bigger and a much more inspired place than what our minds could ever hope to be. Borrow some of that inspiration to widen your possibilities.
  5. Your creative identity grows.
  6. You start a collection of ideas that influence the way that you create confidently. With all that the value that you retain, you may start to see that you begin to inspire the world back.

For the things that you do know, start showing that confidence to those around you and they will start to notice. For the things that you don’t know: don’t worry – you’re not expected to know. So find it elsewhere: on a walk where you can collect your thoughts, on the internet where you can collect inspiration, in conversations where you can collect insights.

As the saying goes, you are the sum of the five closest people to you. Creatively, you are the sum of the collection that you keep. So, make the best collection that you can for the things that you really enjoy, because that’s where it all starts. Collect, collect, collect.