For me, the trick is to see cake potential in everything. Because most of my cakes are sculptural representations of actual objects, it is fairly obvious what I was looking at! Why one object and not another? Well that is usually decided by the person the cake is going to be for. I try to get to know the person, and their likes and dis-likes... their hobbies and obsessions. Usually something from that conversation will jump out at me and scream "THAT'S IT!!!"
I've done many birthday cakes for my kids over the years... when my son turned 2, he got a yellow dumptruck cake... filled with fresh fruit. At that point in his life, his toy truck was the ONLY toy that mattered in his life, and Bob the Builder was his hero. Also, the only food I could get him to eat consistently was fruit (and cake, of course!)
My daughter had her birthday party at a local nature center one year, and the focus of that party was making maple syrup (tapping the trees was quite the interesting party game!!) Anyhow, her cake that year was a HUGE stack of pancakes cake, complete with a generous drizzle of "maple syrup."
Perhaps one of my most disturbing cakes is the dead crow cake. Two of my co-workers were having a heated discussion about hockey. Well in the end, as usually happens; one team won, and one lost. The winner decided that the loser needed to "eat crow." The rest is history.
One birthday cake I made was for a woman whose gift from her family was a cruise trip...
Looking to make a cake that actually looks like a cake? The inspiration there is no less plentiful, but it is less obvious.
If I'm in a hurry and my brain is fried, I may just replicate a cake I have in my rather massive library of cake books and magazines (yes,I'm a bit obsessed with books!) or one of the many on-line resources for cake artists.
That's fine for the occasional slump in inspiration, but doesn't cut it (for me at least) very often. More likely, I will pull elements from a couple of different cakes if my brain is at least half functional!
However, if I'm feeling really excited about a cake, and I really want that WOW factor, I just go out and look at the world around me (or for a broader view of the world, I Google photos on-line!) In fact, I found inspiration one of the default photos that came pre-loaded with Windows... if you can find the photo called "follow.jpg" on your system... doesn't it look like a bride with her bridesmaids trailing behind? For those of you who don't happen to have that version... it's a photo of FISH. See things, and let your mind wander...soon you too will see cake EVERYWHERE!
(*The Business of Cake blog will not be held responsible for any actions you take based on this new world view...! No nibbling!)
Look to nature for colour combinations... you can't beat flowers for incredible colours and shapes!
Elements from architecture are often wonderful inspiration as they are often faced with many of the same limitations of construction that we are with cake.
Clothing and fabrics are another great source of ideas (details from the bride's wedding gown are often used in wedding cakes for an extra special touch.)
Invitations and other crafty details are another... try wandering down the aisles of your local craft store... look at what's being done in polymer play, in beadwork, in one-stroke painting, scrapbooking, ANYTHING! Old wallpapers (or new ones)... paint finishes... furniture... tiles... anything you love can be inspiration for cake!
(this one was inspired by the little ceramic baby feet favours the Mom was giving out..)
Once last caution...
I have had ideas too numerous to count for cakes that have never (at least not yet!) been built, and too many of these ideas have disappeared forever because they were scribbled on a napkin or scrap of paper, never to be found again!)
I am trying to discipline myself to carry a small notebook with me everywhere so when inspiration strikes, I can scribble the ideas there. In short order, I will soon have a lovely pile of ideas which are all my own, to draw upon when my head is in a fog! I will recommend to you to do the same! EVERY idea, no matter how small should go in the book; whether it's a full cake sketch, an address of an interesting building, just a note or word about a general theme, or the tiniest of details which appealed to you. Don't worry if your sketching skills are not the greatest... that's not the point! Just keep a record of your inspirations!!!