Brain Explosions

I often ask people who come to interviews where they get their inspiration, or who inspires them.

I am always looking for answers that aren't obvious, and that say something about the quality of a persons curiosity more than the quality of their RSS collection.

If people struggle you can ask them 'which companies do you admire?', 'what products do you love?' and so on, but by then they've already got minus points.

I especially like it when people give you a real blinder like, 'so, where do you get yours?' (as long as they've had a good go at answering it first. Otherwise it's just lazy.)

Which is why I'm writing this.

If course, it's impossible to say exactly where your inspiration comes from. Its always the sum total of all your experiences.

However, I think I can pinpoint two really important types of inspiration, both of which are kind of brain explosions. When you get really good ones, its amazing.

The first type is the type that pushes whole sections of your brain forward, and gives you lots of new ideas across all the things that you do, and in my experience it always comes from sources outside your current interests. You know when you see this inspiration because you suddenly see things differently. I'm going to call this brain explosion inspiration.

The second type is the type that consolidates lots of the different things floating around in your brain already, crystallises them and helps you tell a story to yourself and others that had been lurking there for a while. You know when you see this because you suddenly start explaining things differently. I'm going to call this brain implosion inspiration.

There is a third type, which is the more mundane, everyday inspiration, that is often less about ideas and more about artefacts - wow, that's a beautiful poster. Or, I'm going to copy that interface component. These are really numerous. I'm not writing about these today.

So, what are some good brain explosion and implosions I've had? I'll list a few:

Brain Explosion #1 - The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

Wow. This is a killer book. Its about science, but its also deeply philosophical. Its perhaps the greatest ever treatise on the importance of having strong ideas but holding them weakly. Kuhn takes this concept up to the meta level, and shows how science is an ever evolving description of the truth behind Nature. This book makes you feel both in awe at mankind and also deeply empowered as a human to better understand yourself and nature. Amazing.

Brain Explosion #2 - Understanding Comics.

Double wow. As a kid I grew up reading and drawing comics. I also loved art, and reading stories. Still do. But reading Scott McCloud just BLEW MY MIND, as suddenly, there on the page in a beautiful meta method was a super concise explanation of how drawings and words can come together to tell the most sophisticated stories ever. This book is absolutely required reading for anyone working in any field that requires them to explain things to other people. This book pushed me forward in so many ways.

Brain Explosion #3 - The Ascent of Man.

Triple wow. Brunowski's legendary series was introduced to me on a summer camp I went on with a bunch of other designers. Its a beautiful, polymathematical explanation of what makes human beings unique in the world. he takes us on a tour of science, but also all human history. You just have to watch it. What made my brain explode was not just the content but also the amazingly daring way he connects together different ideas. The final scene of him wading into a marsh outside a concentration camp, up to his knees in water explaining how the Heisenberg uncertainty principle applies to human affairs as much as atoms is just mind blowing.

Brain Implosion #1 - The Story of Art.

This is a beast of a book. But amazing, as it connects together all artistic traditions into one super narrative. You can quibble with the method and who's in and who's out, but what is so cool about it is that it creates a shared tradition for all creative thought. It made me realise that everything I do is connected to everything that other people had done before me. Which is a profound thought, and something I'm always aware of when designing.

Brain Implosion #2 - In the shadow of the moon.

This film basically makes you cry with happiness at being a human. Its amazing. Interviews with all the surviving people who have walked on the moon. Its a epic tale of what humans can achieve if they work together. Its also a fantastic look behind the scenes about how complex systems and products are designed, and what it takes to bring things together. It makes you proud to be person, and it puts every endeavour in perspective - if you believe you can do something, you probably can.

Brain Implosion #3 - Lean Startup.

This is my most recent implosion. Eric Ries book and ideas have brought together so many different threads of my work over the pat few years - user centred design, innovation, startups, mixing strategy and delivery, growth, getting people with different skills working together, the power of great product and service design. Wow. Its really consolidated so much of what I was saying, and just made it all stack up. Its so good. Please read it.

The post of this title is a bit misleading, as I haven't explained how to have good brain explosions, but in writing this I realised that the answer is less interesting than examples. Its probably something about making sure you are always meeting new people, reading widely and trying to work on stuff that you haven't done before.