Turning Distraction into Inspiration

When I look back on my college days – before I got into design, and my hopes and aspirations of being a professional writer were at their peak – I remember always having the desire to write outside in the University quadrangle. The cool shade was inviting, and promised to shield the glare of the sun from my brick-sized IBM laptop as I enjoyed the lush-greenery of the century old trees that formed the canopy above.

My first attempts to write in this particular locale were thwarted with the reality of neighboring Frisbee fans, the 2-cycle engine of the groundskeeper’s weed whacker, and the giggles of girls gossiping on the old wooden benches that surrounded the quad. At the time, I saw this as a major hindrance to my writing process, and I retreated to my room with an early White Stripes LP and a bottle of rye – I was apparently a hipster before it was hip.

It was not until my senior year – during an advanced writing course – that I learned how much these “distractions” could really serve to improve my writing. Since becoming a designer – a more successful endeavor – I have found that this tactic continues to ring true.

What is a Distraction?

Think for a moment about the idea of a distraction. This is the first step of wrapping your mind around this concept. A distraction is nothing more than a powerful attention-grabber, one that is very difficult to ignore. What is successful design? – an effort to obtain and hold the attention of the public in a way that would, ideally, be difficult to ignore. Great design is nothing more than disguised distraction with an agenda. Of course, we do not want to overlook or understate the artistic aesthetics of design. Art is essentially the means through which the distraction and agenda are disguised and made appealing.

Using Distractions

Focus on the sort of distraction that seems to steal your attention the most, and try to break down this distraction: what is it that really gets to you? Is it the juxtaposed presence of an element that does not belong? – Perhaps, stark visuals that persistently draw your attention? Or does the attraction seem to target the senses, causing your mind to escape to a world of association and memories?

Once you are able to identify the elements of distraction – whether they are universal, relevant only to you, or are principally linked to your target demographic – you are ready to start crafting these elements into your design work, and possibly seek out the distraction to kick-start your thought process on the subject.

For me, I find distractions that target specific senses to be the most effective to work into my design process. This could be a result of my early writing efforts, as there are few things more provocative in writing than sensory description. Graphic designers are no strangers to the importance of visuals, but there are four more senses that are often viewed as stronger attention-grabbers than sight. For me, smell is the most provocative. Smell is a link to the past, immediately linking the individual to some element of his earlier life, and establishing a personal connection. For others, it might be touch or sound.

Whatever sense or senses they happen to be, the challenge comes in representing the feelings evoked through the being exposed to these other sensory elements through a visual means, since the end goal for most designs is to function in the visual from. The game then becomes one of word association. What is it about the distraction – and the form it takes – that really reaches you? How does it make you feel? Can this feeling be broken down into single words or simple phrases, and can these words and phrases be linked with the subject of your design? If so, that will be where your answers lie. If you are able to represent these words and phrases in a visual way, you will have found a means to represent the sensory elements of the distraction, and the feelings they evoke, within your design.


The method may sound very round-about and, in a sense, maybe over simplified, but this does not need to be a difficult process; rather, you should enjoy it. If anything, thinking about your design process in this way will lead you to welcome distractions, as you will know how to deal with them in a productive way. If the method itself does not work, the process may be enough to get the gears turning in the right direction. Often, it feels as though the effort of creating associations with external elements leads to the birth of ideas better than the original.

The end goal is to produce quality design that both you and the client will be proud to be associated with. When you approach the process with an open mind and your usual arsenal of skills and tools, you will find yourself working in a much more productive and enjoyable way. The next time a distraction comes knocking, do not retreat; instead, open the door, and allow yourself to become inspired. The success in your work will be all the proof you need.