Skip to main content Accessibility help

Inspiration choices that matter: the selection of external stimuli during ideation

  • Milene Gonçalves (a1), Carlos Cardoso (a1) and Petra Badke-Schaub (a1)


Inspiration is a widely recognized phenomenon in everyday life. However, researchers still know very little about what the process of inspiration entails. This paper investigates designers’ approaches when selecting inspirational stimuli during the initial phases of a design process. We conducted a think-aloud protocol study and interviews with 31 design Masters students while generating ideas for a design problem. The results indicate that searching for and selecting stimuli require different levels of cognitive effort, depending on whether there is unlimited or limited access to stimuli. Furthermore, three important stages of the inspiration process were identified: keyword definition, stimuli search and stimuli selection. For each of these stages, we elaborate on how designers define keywords, which search approaches they use and what drives their selection of stimuli. This paper contributes to an understanding of how designers can be supported in their inspiration process in a more detailed manner.

  • View HTML
    • Send article to Kindle

      To send this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about sending to your Kindle. Find out more about sending to your Kindle.

      Note you can select to send to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be sent to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

      Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

      Inspiration choices that matter: the selection of external stimuli during ideation
      Available formats

      Send article to Dropbox

      To send this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Dropbox.

      Inspiration choices that matter: the selection of external stimuli during ideation
      Available formats

      Send article to Google Drive

      To send this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Google Drive.

      Inspiration choices that matter: the selection of external stimuli during ideation
      Available formats


Distributed as Open Access under a CC-BY 4.0 license (

Corresponding author

Email address for correspondence:


Hide All
Ansburg, P. I. & Hill, K. 2003 Creative and analytic thinkers differ in their use of attentional resources. Personality and Individual Differences 34, 11411152.
Atman, C., Cardella, M., Turns, J. & Adams, R. 2005 Comparing freshman and senior engineering design processes: an in-depth follow-up study. Design Studies 26 (4), 325357.
Atman, C., Chimka, J., Bursic, K. & Nachtmann, H. 1999 A comparison of freshman and senior engineering design processes. Design Studies 20 (2), 131152.
Boden, M.(Ed.) 1994 Dimensions of creativity. MIT Press.
Bonnardel, N. & Marmèche, E. 2005 Towards supporting evocation processes in creative design: a cognitive approach. International Journal of Human–Computer Studies 63 (4–5), 422435.
Brehm, J. 1966 A Theory of Psychology Reactance. Academic.
Buijs, J. A. 2012 The Delft Innovation Method: A Design Thinker’s Guide to Innovation. Eleven International Publishing.
Cardoso, C. & Badke-Schaub, P. 2011 The influence of different pictorial representations during idea generation. The Journal of Creative Behaviour 45 (2), 130146.
Chan, J., Dow, S. P. & Schunn, C. D. 2014 Do the best design ideas (really) come from conceptually distant sources of inspiration?. Design Studies 36, 3158.
Cheng, P., Mugge, R. & Schoormans, J. 2014 A new strategy to reduce design fixation: presenting partial photographs to designers. Design Studies 35 (4), 374391.
Chiu, I. & Shu, L. 2010 Potential limitations of verbal protocols in design experiments. In ASME 2010 International Design Engineering Technical Conferences & Computers and Information in Engineering Conference IDETC/CIE 2010, pp. 110.
Chiu, I. & Shu, L. H. 2007 Using language as related stimuli for concept generation. Artificial Intelligence for Engineering Design Analysis and Manufacturing 21 (2), 103121.
Chiu, I. & Shu, L. H. 2012 Investigating effects of oppositely related semantic stimuli on design concept creativity. J. Engineering Design 23 (4), 271296.
Christensen, B. T. & Schunn, C. D. 2007 The relationship of analogical distance to analogical function and preinventive structure: the case of engineering design. Memory & Cognition 35 (1), 2938.
Court, A., Culley, S. & Mcmahon, C. 1993 The information requirements of engineering designers. In Proceedings of the International Conference of Engineering Design 1993.
Crilly, N., Blackwell, A. & Clarkson, P. J. 2006 Graphic elicitation: using research diagrams as interview stimuli. Qualitative research 6 (3), 341366.
Dorst, K. & Cross, N. 2001 Creativity in the design process: co-evolution of design problem-solution. Design Studies 22, 425437.
Eastman, C. 2001 New Directions in Design Cognition: Studies of Representation and Recall (ed. Eastman, C.), Knowing and Learning to Design: Cognition in Design Education, pp. 146. Elsevier.
Eckert, C. & Stacey, M. 2003 Sources of inspiration in industrial practice: the case of knitwear design. Journal of Design Research 3, doi:10.1504/JDR.2003.009826.
Ericsson, K. & Simon, H. 1993 Protocol Analysis: Verbal Reports as Data. MIT Press.
Fu, K., Chan, J., Cagan, J., Kotovsky, K., Schunn, C. & Wood, K. 2013 The meaning of ‘near’ and ‘far’: the impact of structuring design databases and the effect of distance of analogy on design output. Journal of Mechanical Design 135 (2), 021007.
Gentner, D. 1983 Structure-mapping: a theoretical framework for analogy. Cognitive Science 7 (2), 155170.
Gentner, D. & Markman, A. B. 1997 Structure mapping in analogy and similarity. American Psychologist 52 (1), 4556.
Gick, M. L. & Holyoak, K. J. 1980 Analogical problem solving. Cognitive Psychology 12, 306355.
Goldschmidt, G. 1997 Capturing indeterminism: representation in the design problem space. Design Studies 18, 441455.
Goldschmidt, G. 2001 Visual analogy – a strategy for design reasoning and learning. In Design Knowing and Learning – Cognition in Design Education (ed. Eastman, C., Newsletter, W. & McCracken, W.), pp. 199219. Elsevier.
Goldschmidt, G. & Sever, A. L. 2010 Inspiring design ideas with texts. Design Studies 32 (2), 139155.
Gonçalves, M., Cardoso, C. & Badke-Schaub, P. 2013 Through the looking glass of inspiration: case studies on inspirational search processes of novice designers. In Proceedings of the International Association of Societies of Design Research, IASDR 2013, Tokyo, Japan.
Gonçalves, M., Cardoso, C. & Badke-Schaub, P. 2014 What inspires designers? Preferences on inspirational approaches during idea generation. Design Studies 35 (1), 2953.
Henderson, K. 1999 On Line and on Paper: Visual Representations, Visual Culture, and Computer Graphics in Design Engineering. pp. 114. Cambridge MIT Press.
Hennessey, B. & Amabile, T. 2010 Creativity. Annual Review of Psychology 61, 569598.
Herring, S. R., Chang, C.-C., Krantzler, J. & Bailey, B. P. 2009 Getting Inspired! Understanding how and why examples are used in creative design practice. In Proceedings of CHI 2009 – Design Methods, pp. 8796.
Hicks, B. J., Culley, S. J., Allen, R. D. & Mullineux, G. 2002 A framework for the requirements of capturing, storing and reusing information and knowledge in engineering design. International Journal of Information Management 22, 263280.
Holyoak, K. J. & Koh, K. 1987 Surface and structural similarity in analogical transfer. Memory & Cognition 15 (4), 332340.
Howard, T. J.2008 Information management for creative stimuli in engineering design. Ph.D. Thesis, Bath, University of Bath.
Howard, T. J., Culley, S. J. & Dekoninck, E. A. 2010 The use of creative stimuli at early stages of industrial product innovation. Research in Engineering Design 21 (4), 263274.
Jansson, D. & Smith, S. 1991 Design fixation. Design Studies 12 (1), 311.
Jonson, B. 2005 Design ideation: the conceptual sketch in the digital age. Design Studies 26, 613624.
Karlsen, K., Maiden, N. & Kerne, A 2009 Inventing requirements with creativity support tools. In Proceedings 15th International Working Conference, REFSQ’2009, Lecture Notes on Computer Science LNCS 5512, pp. 162174.
Kavakli, M. & Gero, J. S. 2002 The structure of concurrent cognitive actions: a case study on novice and expert designers. Design Studies 23 (2002), 2540.
Keller, A. I., Pasman, G. J. & Stappers, P. J. 2006 Collections designers keep: collecting visual material for inspiration and reference. CoDesign 2 (1), 1733.
Kerne, A., Smith, S., Koh, E., Choi, H. & Graeber, R. 2008a An experimental method for measuring the emergence of new ideas in information discovery. International Journal of Human–Computer Interaction 24 (5), 460477.
Kerne, A., Koh, E., Smith, S. M., Webb, A. & Dworaczyk, B. 2008b combinFormation: mixed-initiative composition of image and text surrogates promotes information discovery. ACM Transactions on Information Systems 27 (1), 145.
Khurana, A. & Rosenthal, S. 1997 Integrating the fuzzy front end of new product development. Sloan Management Review 38 (2), 103120.
Kules, B.2005 National Science Foundation Workshop Report Creativity Support Tools, Washington, DC, June 13–14 (2005) (retrieved, 10/04/2016).
Kwasitsu, L. 2003 Information-seeking behaviour of design, process and manufacturing engineers. Library & Information Science Research 25, 459476.
Linsey, J. S., Markman, A. B. & Wood, K. L. 2012 Design by analogy: a study of the WordTree method for problem re-representation. Journal of Mechanical Design 134 (4), 041009.
Lloyd, P., Lawson, B. & Scott, P. 1995 Can concurrent verbalization reveal design cognition? Design Studies 16 (2), 237259.
Lubart, T. 1994 Creativity. In The Handbook of Perception and Cognition: Vol. 12. Thinking and Problem Solving (ed. Carterette, E. C., Friedman, M. P. & Sternberg, R. J.), vol. Ed. Academic Press.
Mednick, S. A. 1962 The associative basis of the creative process. Psychological Review 69 (3), 220232.
Mougenot, C., Bouchard, C. & Aoussat, A. 2008 Inspiration, images and design: an investigation of designers’ information gathering strategies. Journal of Design Research 7 (4), 331351.
Muller, W. 1989 Design discipline and the significance of visuo-spatial thinking. Design Studies 10 (1), 1223.
Norman, D. 1993 Things That Make us Smart: Defending Human Attributes in the Age of the Machine. Addison-Wesley Longman Publishing Co.
Ozkan, O. & Dogan, F. 2013 Cognitive strategies of analogical reasoning in design: differences between expert and novice designers. Design Studies 34 (2), 161192.
Pasman, G. 2003 Designing with precedents. Ph.D. Thesis, TU Delft, The Netherlands.
Prabha, C., Silipigni Connaway, L., Olszewski, L. & Jenkins, L. R. 2007 What is enough? Satisfying information needs. Journal of Documentation 63 (1), 7489.
Purcell, T. & Gero, J. 1992 Effects of examples on the results of a design activity. Knowledge-Based Systems 5 (1), 8291.
Runco, M. & Jaeger, G. 2012 The standard definition of creativity. Creativity Research Journal 24 (1), 9296.
Sarkar, P. & Chakrabarti, A. 2007 Development of a method for assessing design creativity. In International Conference on Engineering Design, ICED’07, vol. 390, pp. 112.
Sarkar, P. & Chakrabarti, A. 2008 The effect of representation of triggers on design outcomes. Artificial Intelligence for Engineering Design, Analysis and Manufacturing 22, 101116.
Sawyer, R. 2006 Explaining creativity: the science of human innovation. Creativity 27, 368.
Seifert, C. M., Meyer, D., Davidson, N., Patalano, A. & Yaniv, I. 1995 Demystification of cognitive insight? Opportunistic assimilation and the prepared-mind hypothesis. In The Nature of Insight, pp. 71124.
Setchi, R. & Bouchard, C. 2010 In search of design inspiration: a semantic-based approach. Journal of Computing and Information Science in Engineering 10 (3).
Shah, J., Vargas Hernandez, N., Summers, J. & Kulkarni, S. 2001 Collaborative Sketching (C-Sketch) – an idea generation technique for engineering design. The Journal of Creative Behavior, 35(3) 168198.
Simon, H. 1973 The structure of ill structured problems. Artificial Intelligence 4 (3–4), 181201.
Smith, S. M. & Ward, T. B. 2012 Cognition and the creation of ideas. In The Oxford Handbook of Thinking and Reasoning (ed. Holyoak, K. J. & Morrison, R. G.), pp. 456474.
Stein, M. 1953 Creativity and culture. Journal of Psychology 36, 31322.
Sternberg, R.(Ed.) 1988 The Nature of Creativity: Contemporary Psychological Perspectives. Cambridge University Press.
Töre Yargin, G. & Crilly, N. 2015 Information and interaction requirements for software tools supporting analogical design. Artificial Intelligence for Engineering Design, Analysis and Manufacturing 29 (02), 203214.
Vattam, S., Wiltgen, B., Helms, M., Goel, A. K. & Yen, J. 2010 DANE: fostering creativity in and through biologically inspired design. In Design Creativity 2010 (ed. Taura, T. & Nagai, Y.), pp. 115122. Springer.
Vattam, S. S. & Goel, A. K. 2011 Foraging for inspiration: understanding and supporting the online information seeking practices of biologically inspired designers. In Proceedings of the ASME 2011 International Design Engineering Technical Conferences & Computers and Information in Engineering Conference IDETC/CIE 2011, pp. 177186.
Ware, C. 2008 Visual Thinking: For Design. Elsevier (Morgan Kaufmann).
Wilson, T. D. 1997 Information behaviour: an interdisciplinary perspective. Information Processing & Management 33 (4), 551572.
Wulff, I., Rasmussen, B. & Westgaard, R. 2000 Documentation in large-scale engineering design: information processing and defensive mechanisms to generate information overload. International Journal of Industrial Ergonomics 25 (3), 295310.
Yang, M. C., Wood, W. H. & Cutkosky, M. R. 2005 Design information retrieval: a thesauri-based approach for reuse of informal design information. Engineering with Computers 21 (2), 177192.



Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed