Fine artists seem to have an unlimited well of ideas. Their creativity seems constantly renewed painting after painting and sculpture after sculpture. But their source of inspiration isn’t exclusive to them; I recently discovered that if we look closely at many works of arts we can start unlocking the tools that help artists come up with their ideas.
When I signed up for a Coursera course called Modern Art & Ideas created by MoMA, I quickly realized that a lot of the principles shared in the class applied to branded storytelling as much as they applied to art. The class explains that modern art is traditionally organized and studied by two areas of focus: time period and movement. Instead, this course focuses on studying modern art through the lens of four themes: Places & Spaces, Identity, Everyday Objects and Society.
I noticed that the themes that helped each artist arrive at an idea could come together in an inspiration toolkit for our own ideation.
These four questions popped in my head:
- How can my location or the space around me serve as inspiration?
- How can my own identity or that of my target audience serve as inspiration?
- How can everyday objects, like a cup of coffee, serve as inspiration?
- How can the current events happening all around me provide inspiration?
In order to answer those questions, first we must look at how artists found their inspiration in those themes.
1. Places & Spaces
Brands can find as much inspiration in their location as Piet Mondrian found in New York City to create Broadway Boogie Woogie.
A great example of this type of thinking is Tullamore D.E.W., which took a place everyone is familiar with—the Irish Pub—and gave it a new life and meaning by simply changing the name on the door. For their St. Patrick’s Day campaign, the whiskey brand brought the saying “Everyone is Irish” to reality by creating O’Everyone’s, a pub where visitors can automatically become Irish by padding an O’ to the front of their last names. Guests left with custom merchandise bearing their Irish last names and the taste of the triple blended Irish Whiskey they wouldn’t soon forget.
Just like Frida Kahlo chose to explore her identity and history in her paintings, brands can gather inspiration by exploring the identity of their target audience.
One of the best brands at doing this is Dove. They have challenged the beauty category and everything that it stood for over decades when they released with their Beauty Sketches campaign. Since then, they’ve continuously given a platform to their audience to define themselves and their beauty in their own terms.
3. Everyday Objects
Marcel Duchamp decided to challenge the concept of art itself by picking everyday objects and giving them a new life. In that same way, brand marketers can take inspiration from the everyday household items they’re working with on a daily basis that may not seem ground breaking at first glance.
The team at Rethink Canada got inspiration from the classic Heinz ketchup bottle itself to solve the age-old problem of flowing ketchup out of the bottle. By simply tweaking the position of the label, they were able to create a new, compelling story for an old and established brand.
Dorothea Lange, like many other artists, chose to create work in response to the social issues of her time. Her photographs not only documented the life of migrant workers, but were able to enact change. Recently, we’ve seen many brands show support for causes that matter to their audience, from LGBTQ+ causes to anti-racism. But it’s no longer enough for brands to react to what’s happening around them, they need to lead.
A good example of brands reflecting the world around them comes in the increasing number of brands that are choosing to step away from the racist brand mascots they’ve lived with for decades. But one brand stands out from the pack: Land O Lakes removed the Native American woman icon from their packaging in February of 2020, taking the initiative before consumers began demanding companies make moves such as this, and established the brand a step above the rest.
Just like artists are inspired by their location, their identity, the everyday objects found around them or the socio-political issues of their time, brands can look to those same sources for inspiration. Put it to the test by brainstorming within these four areas for your next project and see what happens.