How (My) Ideas Are Born

The muse of inspiration rewards the seeker, the mover.

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SCAD President Paula Wallace interviews costume designer, Ruth E. Carter
SCAD President Paula Wallace interviews costume designer, Ruth E. Carter

Where does creativity really come from? Unlike the birth of Athena, my ideas don’t leap forth unbidden from the mind. I’ve spent most of my life leading the world’s most comprehensive art and design university, and my days are devoted to invention, from the design of learning spaces and one-of-a-kind degree programs to the production of events and films. (Before I continue, you should know that everything I do relates to the university I founded 40 years ago. This is what happens when you’re a founder of something. It consumes your imagination!)

For me, inspiration begins outsidethe mind — through observation, listening, and opening oneself to the world. I find my best ideas in the interstices between other ideas, revealing hidden relationships. 

For design, it all starts with unexpected color. London, so often stereotyped as a gray city of rain, is a pleasure-dome of hues and tones. Look at the awnings and how they express the personality of each building and place of business. A short walk through London inspired a year’s worth of color in SCAD buildings. Take the color we call “Misty Amethyst” (get a peek here in our Tomochichi Room). This shade is a velvety cocoon that makes rooms feel warm and inviting: not so bright as purple, not so meh as aubergine, neither as insubstantial as lavender nor as girlish as violet – first noticed on a London awning.

I’m also inspired by speaking with and learning from the world’s great designers, thinkers, leaders. A conversation with Carol Hamilton at L’Oréal at a dinner party a few years ago inspired the creation of a new B.F.A. degree program in the Business of Beauty and Fragrance. A few weeks ago, I heard Oscar nominee Ruth E. Carter give a talk at SCAD on her process of creating Afrofuturist costumes for Black Panther. She stressed research. Ideas don’t spontaneously appear! You have to read, travel, ask, learn, look. Consider how a visit to the Museum of Natural History inspired the design of a bestselling book cover, or how one man’s frustration inspired the invention of Uber, one of the most important apps of the last decade.

Listening is key. I’ll never forget one student who was touring SCAD several years ago. She walked out of Poetter Hall with an enormous smile and stepped out into the street to get a better look at its Richardsonian Romanesque façade, stout as a castle. 

“It’s Hogwarts!” she exclaimed.

Yes, I thought. Rowling’s descriptions of Hogwarts are full of nostalgia. Subsequently we captured that same romance in the design of both Morris Hall and Ruskin Hall. Hogwarts holds stories and secrets, and so do these buildings. (If you visit, you might want to peek in the drawers and behind the bookcases.)

Travel inspires me. Design Miami is always a feast for the eyes. TEDWomen 2018 was a feast for the heart and mind. I left both events with a journal full of notes and ideas for new degree programs, films, creative projects. Kenzie Adair’s recent exhibition at the SCAD Museum of Art inspired me to keep asking questions about the portrayal of women in media and culture, a topic I’ve written about more in the last few months.

The muse of inspiration rewards the seeker, the mover. You have to get outside of your house, your bubble. That’s a prime benefit of SCAD operating four campuses across the world, not to mention that graduates with international study experiences have significantly higher employability. The fact that our students can live and study in the U.S.Europe, and Asia before graduation means inspiration is designed into the curriculum. Travel presents the traveler with many gifts! Get out there. Travel hopefully. Inspiration is waiting for you to find it!

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