A couple of months ago I received an email from Jenny Lanier, a grad student working on her masters thesis in graphic design. She read something I had written here a few years back about finding inspiration without plagiarizing the ideas of other designers and asked if I wouldn’t mind responding to a few additional questions.
I’m often asked how to generate ideas and where to find inspiration and I revisit both topics from time to time. As I was answering Jenny’s questions I wrote down some additional thoughts and figured I’d present a short series on the subject.
Today and the next two weeks I want to talk about how and where to find inspiration. I’ll also talk about how to train yourself to observe your surroundings for an endless source of ideas. I’ll close the series with some thoughts about gaining confidence in your ideas so you can avoid copying what inspires you.
Don’t Wait Until You Need Inspiration
To design, to write, to play music, to do anything creative, you need ideas and you often want a shot of inspiration to help you get started. Odds are at one time or another you stared at a blank page, a new file in a graphics editor, or an empty HTML document and thought what now? How do I get started on this project?
It’s often at this point that we go searching around the web looking at websites others have designed, finding a few that might fit our project, and using them as inspiration. As a general rule, I think a better solution is to always be on the lookout for things that inspire you instead of waiting till that last minute when you absolutely need to be inspired.
I don’t know any creative person who would be satisfied with a single idea or single example to inspire him or her. We need ideas and inspiration all the time so it only makes sense to devote time to gather inspiration and generate new ideas.
For me, reading is a great source for a lot of things and so I fill my feedreader with subscriptions to sites that talk about design, development, and related topics. I subscribe to sites that point me to designs they like. I subscribe to sites that show examples of photography and art and writing. I subscribe to sites that…well you get the idea.
I click through to see the actual sites instead of only looking at them in my feedreader. I click on the links in the articles I’m reading. I’m constantly taking in new information and new imagery this way.
I spend at least 20% of my week taking in new information to fill my head with ideas and to be inspired by others instead of waiting until the moment I need the inspiration to go out and seek it.
Collect What Inspires You
Much of what I take in I would soon forget without doing more than just read or look. You want to have a place to store the things that inspire you and are generating ideas for you.
You can bookmark pages online somewhere. You can take screenshots and save the images. You can create a hierarchy of folders somewhere on your computer and save things to their appropriate place or you can use some kind of database application to store everything. I don’t think it matters as long as you store and collect the things somewhere that you can easily revisit and find later.
There are a couple of reasons why I collect ideas and inspiration.
First it offers a place to quickly search when I need inspiration or a new idea. Everything in the collection has inspired me already or it wouldn’t be there. Odds are I’ll find something quicker in my own collection than by searching the web.
Second and probably more important is the act of collecting leads to a deeper understanding of what inspires me. I don’t simply grab a screenshot and file the image away. While I’m saving it, I’ll add a few notes about why I liked it. Was it the color scheme? The layout? Maybe it was a small detail that caught my attention or a specific graphic on the page.
Writing down notes helps me understand why I found something inspiring, which in turn helps me better understand which projects would be better served by a particular inspirational piece.
How to Avoid Imitation
You can avoid imitation by looking smaller or larger at what inspires you.
Looking smaller is about being inspired by part of something instead of the whole thing. Say you have to draw inspiration from other websites, but don’t want your design to come across as a copy. In that case be inspired by the navigation of one site, the imagery of another site, and the layout of a third site. Then combine all those parts into something that’s different from all three.
Looking larger is about thinking in a more general, more abstract way. Instead of being inspired by the specific red, green, and blue a website used and then copying down the hex values to use, think about why you like the colors.
- Do you like that the site used primary color?
- Do you like how the cool and warm colors work together?
- Do you like the contrast between the main color used and the accent color?
Take time to understand why you specifically like something and use that deeper understanding in your own design instead of copying what you see on the surface.
You might for example that what you liked in a color scheme is how the cool and warm colors create a sense of depth in the composition. Instead of using the exact same colors in your own design, explore other warm and cool colors that do the same. You might find a combination that creates even more depth or less depth or whatever works best for your project.
Where to Find Sources of Inspiration
Hopefully you agree that you should always be on the lookout for sources of ideas and inspiration and when you find something that inspires you or leads to new ideas you should save it somewhere and add some general thoughts about why.
But where exactly should you be searching. That’s really up to you as you might be inspired by different things than what inspires me, but I think there are a couple of guidelines you can follow.
- Seek the best sources
- Diversify your sources as much as possible
Seek the best sources—Best is a subjective word. What’s best to me may not be best to you and vice versa. That’s fine. We each have to define what’s best for ourselves. Use your judgement about what is and isn’t good design and collect more of the good sources for inspiration.
Sounds obvious I know. Of course the things that inspire you will be the sources you think best. I’m talking about the people who create those inspirational designs. Who do you think are the best designers today? How about in the past? Do you prefer a certain style of work?
Instead of consulting articles listing the latest and greatest top 582.7 designs from 2016, find sources that consistently present great designs and designers.
My point is to not settle for the first example you come across or for the easiest sources you can find. Look for things you consider the best and hang on to those sources so you can visit them again and again.
Diversify your sources—If you always draw inspiration from a small handful of sources, then all your work will remain niche at best and more likely it will be derivative or worse a direct copy of something you like.
Don’t look to the same few designers for ideas and inspiration all the time. Diversify your sources as much as you can.
Start by diversifying the designers you look to for inspiration. Try to a find a greater number of designers whose work you admire, ideally designers with different styles. Look beyond the web and the design of websites. Find designs you like in printed material, industrial design, fashion design, etc.
For example why not draw inspiration for the color scheme of your next site from the world of fashion. Walk into a clothing store and see what color combinations are being used.
Look beyond design to other visual arts like painting and photography. Both work with the rules of composition, the same as you do when designing a website.
Why not look to nature and see it as a more organic form of design?
Seek inspiration beyond the visual. Graphically we talk about positioning positive elements on negative space. Music is created by varying positive sounds with negative silences. Music is created through the contrast and repetition of sound and silence to create rhythm. Why not try to visually express a favorite piece of music. Convert the rhythm in time to a rhythm in space.
There’s really no end to where you can find sources of inspiration and new ideas. The main thing is not to settle for the obvious unless you want your designs to look like everyone else’s designs.
Anyone can search Google for “inspiring design examples 2016.” Most people won’t go beyond that kind of obvious search. Anyone who does, will much more likely create something unique and different because they’re starting with something that isn’t the same as what everyone else starts with. Keep that in mind when you’re looking to be inspired.
The best way to have inspiration when you need it is to always be looking for new things to inspire you. I don’t think there are right or wrong places to find inspiration. The best sources depend on you and what you find interesting.
Set aside time each week to be inspired and skip the obvious and easy. It’ll take time to build up a wellspring of ideas and inspiration, but the sooner you start, the sooner you’ll have that wellspring.
Save what you find inspiring and revisit it from time to time. Make sure to add thoughts to remind yourself why you liked something. Trust me, you’ll forget a few months later if it’s not written down.
Diversify, diversify, diversify. If you don’t want your work to end up as a copy of someone else’s work, you need to draw inspiration from multiple sources and ideally sources as far removed from what you’re going to create.
Next week I’ll share some thoughts for how you can be inspired by your surroundings simply by paying more attention and noticing the ordinary things you come in contact with each and every day.
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