Observation Is The Key To Finding Inspiration

The real trick to finding inspiration is realizing you don’t have to go out looking for it. It’s all around you and it’s ready to share itself with you. The thing is most of us don’t know how to see it.


Last week I talked about finding inspiration and generating new ideas. I talked about how to gather inspiration from a variety of sources and how you want to collect ideas and things that inspire you. I also mentioned that it’s better to always be taking in inspiration than waiting until you need it.

Today I want to address that last point in greater detail. I want to talk about seeing what’s already in front of you as a potential source of ideas and inspiration.

Noticing Instead of Seeking

When designing a new website, I’ve been inspired by other websites, magazines, software, nature, conversations, television, books, furniture, posters, office supplies, and a variety of seemingly random things. Inspiration really can be found anywhere as long as you know how to look.

Everything around you, everything you come in contact with, was either designed by a human being or it grew organically in nature according to the laws of physics. Those laws are, in a sense, the design of the universe. Plants grow toward the light. Animals adapt their color to better hide from a predator or stalk prey. These are among the basic rules for how nature works.

There’s a bookcase to my right. It’s mostly filled with books as you might guess, but in addition to the books there are a number of other things all with examples of typography. I see type on the boxes of a couple of board games, on some hats, a can of cleaner for my laptop screen, a candle, a stapler, and the packaging for a few random items that happen to live on one of the shelves.

You might open some of the books looking for typographic inspiration, but would you even think to look at those other items? Again it’s not about having to seek out inspiration. There are lots of things around you right now that can inspire you. The challenge is to notice them.

We come in contact with inspiring design every day, but we don’t recognize it for what it is so we pass it by. Simply noticing design is part of the equation. Learning to see the world as a designer (or writer or photographer, etc.) is another part.

Learn to See The World Through the Lens of Design

To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
—Mark Twain

You’ve probably seen the quote above (or one similar to it) before. The idea is we see the world through a context of our own creation. If you ask a designer what’s wrong with your website, she’ll point out a few things that could be improved in the design. Ask a copywriter the same question and he’ll point out where the copy could be better. Ask a developer and the site loads to slow. A business consultant will tell you the site is fine and your business model needs improving.

Each of us sees the world through a different lens. If you want inspiration for designs then you need to train yourself to see the world through the lens of design.

20 years ago when I walked up and down a street filled with different shops, I might look into the windows to see what each store had inside and decide if I wanted to go in for a longer look. I failed to notice a lot of things, though.

I wouldn’t have noticed the sign over the front door displaying the company logo. I might have read the words to know what store I was walking into, but I wouldn’t have given the sign more than a glance. I wouldn’t have noticed the colors, let alone how well they did or didn’t work together. I wouldn’t have noticed if the letters were serif or sans-serif or if they were hand lettered.

I also wouldn’t have noticed how the products were organized in the window or ask myself what the display said about the philosophy of the store owner. If I walked inside, I wouldn’t have paid attention to how everything was arranged and where the register was in relation to the different items on display.

I was looking at all those things through the lens of a consumer and not the lens of a designer. After starting a freelance web design business I did start to notice these things and I started to train myself to see the world as a designer might see it.

Your job as a designer is ultimately to solve problems and there are plenty of examples everywhere with solutions to different problems. There are solutions you can think about and decide for yourself if they do indeed solve the problem and if so how well.

Paying attention to my surroundings this way has led me to notice many more examples of good and bad design and the good examples can often serve as inspiration. I grab my phone, take a picture and send it off to my storehouse of inspiring things.

Today when I walk down a row of shops I pay more attention to things like the sign above the door and I ask myself what does it suggest about what’s inside. When I then walk inside one of the stores I ask myself if the inside matches the message that was communicated by that sign over the door.

Ask and Answer Questions About Design

Paying attention is a first step, but there’s more to seeing the world through the lens of design (or anything else). I find Q&A sessions with yourself are a good way to train yourself to think critically and see the world like a designer.

Ask yourself questions about design and then do your best to answer your own questions. Always ask yourself before asking anyway else.

For example if you come across a site and like the color scheme, don’t just file away the color scheme for future use. Ask yourself why you like it. Why does it inspire you? Is it a specific color that’s being used? Is it because the colors are all dark? All light? Is it because the colors contrast well or maybe because they complement one another.

Don’t ask someone else. Raise your own questions and think about the answers. Maybe you won’t know why you like a particular color scheme, but try to figure it out anyway. The time you spend raising questions and trying to answer them is time spent thinking about design and seeing the world through the lens of design.

The Q&A with yourself pushes you to think like a designer and consequently see the world as a designer. It doesn’t matter if you come up with the right answer or not. The answer is actually irrelevant for this process. It’s the effort spent thinking about the questions and trying to answer them that’s important.

Look at something designed and try to guess why the designer made the specific choices she made. Do you agree with the solution? Can you think of a better one? Can you think of a reason (a small budget perhaps) why the designer didn’t offer a better solution?

Look at a design and reverse engineer the problem. Think about the information the designer might have had before working out a solution. What conditions and constraints might have been in place to prevent the optimal solution?

In addition to using your own judgement in asking and answering these questions, spend some time learning design fundamentals so you can recognize them in the work of others. It’s one thing to look at a web page and decide you like it and another to look at the same page and understand how the layout fits with design theory.

Knowing the theory will help you better understand the decisions the designer made. Did the designer apply fundamentals to the layout? Why or why not? How do you know? If they did apply the theory how did they do it? What specific technique did they use?

Always be asking yourself these kind of questions even with things that don’t seem like they were designed. The next time you pass your favorite tree think about why it’s your favorite. Is it the shape of the trunk? The direction the limbs grow? The color of the leaves? What is it that leads you to like that tree? Can you use that in a future design.

Closing Thoughts

I think your ability to notice, observe, and to ask and answer questions is the key to finding inspiration that can help you with your work.

People frequently ask authors where they get ideas and the universal replay is that ideas are everywhere and once you learn how to see them your problem won’t be where to get ideas, but how to find the time to write stories for all the ideas you have. The same is true for design.

The more you think about every day things through the context of design, the more you’re thinking about design solutions and design problems, and the better you’ll be able to come up with your own solutions to the problems you’re tasked with solving.

When you train yourself to see the world as a designer, you’ll discover you can find inspiration in most anything and you’ll open up wider and more varied sources of inspiration. Train yourself to pay more attention to your day-to-day surroundings and ask and answer design related questions about what you see. The more you do this, the less you’ll wonder where to draw inspiration for your next project.

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