We've all been there. Faced with a new assignment, you sit there staring at a blank page (or screen) wondering where to begin. You want to create something really great but don't know where to start. Too many times you've had a great idea shot down due to how expensive it seems or how unconventional it is, so you think it might make sense to play it safe and not waste your time. You want to give your client options, but you also want to make money on the project. What do you do? For me, the thing that has always worked is precedents. Studying older works from previous decades, and in some cases centuries. Let me use Architecture as an example.
For me, Modern Design in this country peaked in the 1950's. From toasters to houses, everyone was buzzing with the promise of tomorrow in the television age. Pick up any magazine from Ladies Home Journal to LIFE and you will find that most of what was produced in those years is now the stuff that legends are made of. Globalization had not yet happened and the United States was a hotbed of industrial activity. The world's greatest Architects all aspired to come to the United States and work. Mies. Gropius. Neutra. In fact, so much Modern Design was produced during those years that we have yet to discover it. A recent book entitled "Julius Shulman: Chicago" featured mid-century works from many architects that I had never heard of. One such architect named Edward Dart, designed one of the best houses that I have ever seen and could be featured in the page of Dwell magazine right now. So it goes without saying that there is alot of good stuff out there from the past that is only now coming to light thanks to the Internet.
The other great thing about looking at older work is that you see it in the context of 21st century life. Usually this means that you can improve it based on the technology currently available. A good example of this is radiant floor heating. Most people think that radiant floor heating was developed in the 20th century but the concept goes back over 2000 years to ancient Korea and Rome where various underfloor heating techniques were applied. Koreans used warm stones and heaters placed under the floor to keep their feet warm once they removed their shoes upon entry to a home. The Romans had a similar concept. And although the technology of distributing hot water through copper (or plastic) tubing did not come until thousands of years later, the idea had been in place for centuries.
The more you study history, the more you realize that people have not really changed. As Billy Joel said so eloquently, "We Didn't Start the Fire - It was always burning since the world's been turning". That being the case, finding an existing torch is usually more productive than trying to make your own flame. That's not to say that there aren't the right times and opportunities to make your own flame. I'm just saying that often you can get inspiration or the seed of an idea from studying relevant ideas from yesteryear.
If you are still not convinced, check out www.alvinlustig.org . Another pioneer of Design, Lustig's work is still fresh and relevant despite how long ago it was done. Who knows, maybe there's a germ of inspiration in there for your next project.
I do realize that it's the future that everyone is concerned about. I do realize that innovation is what everyone is looking for. However, I also have found that there is alot of great work out there, most of it unknown. In many ways, technology has made us less competent and less focused. We are more reliant on computers to do our work for us. Going back to earlier times allows us to see the application of a human mind on a problem without distraction. If you like Calatrava, check out Pier Luigi Nervi. If you like Pentagram, check out Herbert Matter. The results will shock you.