Inspiration is a key component to visual design—it’s a reference point that kick-starts the creation process, and a starting point for producing beautiful, visually pleasing solutions in response to a well defined problem.
But honestly, how to be inspired is a f*cking mystery to me. It’s a fleeting, rarely spontaneous feeling, and almost never there when you need it. Yet as an industry we tend to talk about inspiration as if it comes easy — like a natural talent that good designers possess, and a weakness that bad designers should overcome. But if you’re anything like me, finding inspiration is something takes considerable work.
I’m not someone who wakes up feeling inspired by the world — I wish I was, but that’s simply not the case. Instead, the reality is that each time I come to designing a new piece of UI, or produce a visual concept — I’ll almost certainly spend the first portion of the day totally and utterly lost for ideas. This is the moment we need inspiration — and the point where frantically clicking through Dribbble or looking to the sky for divine intervention only makes matters worse.
I’ve found a better way.
Inspiration as a physical resource
This is my little secret — the one thing I can’t design without. For me, inspiration comes from browsing a bunch of images I have saved in my Dropbox and categorised using a 3rd party app. These are images that I’ve been saving daily for over 10 years, that sit quietly in their thousands waiting for the next project.
For me, inspiration doesn’t strike at the most opportune moments — so whenever I come across something beautiful, I’ll add it to the pile, categorise it (by type of image, colour, visual device etc) and forget about it…
On the face of it, that doesn’t sound like a particularly valuable resource for instant inspiration, but you’d be surprised. At an instant I can look at all the icons or hand-drawn illustrations that have ever grabbed my attention, from hundreds of different artists, and let my mind wonder. Over time it has become a world of beauty, bespoke to my tastes and interests — a curated resource I can dip into when I need it most.
It’s the single greatest source of inspiration, for me, when my mind is blank.
But here’s the thing… of the tens-of-thousands of images I have saved —you won’t find a single website, screenshot, or piece of UI… which might sound strange, considering that’s most relevant to me as a digital designer. Instead what I find conjures up the most inspiration is obscure architecture, weird and wonderful packaging, hand-drawn type, unusual illustrations, vibrant photographs of food and experimental branding projects.
Despite being different in nature to the work I’m doing, they’re still able to spark a hundred ideas, suggest interesting colour palletes or allude to a visual style I might not have seen for a while. They’re abstracted from trends, from each other and from the work that I see day in, day out. The key to inspiration is to look sideways at other industries and patterns… after all, it’s pretty difficult to design something unique by staring at the solutions of other people for that exact same thing.
I highly recommend it, that is — to look at the visual output of other disciplines and industries, and allow your mind to absorb the creative excellence of others. At the very least, it’s a good way to look outside of your industry bubble.
My Top 20
The following is a list of sites I try to visit every day and find inspiring or interesting in some form. Naturally these aren’t a substitution for industry-specific resource, but should provide a broad base for your inspiration and viewing pleasure:
- Convoy — Beautiful photography, fashion and interior design
- NapoleonFour—Photography and fashion
- Collate—Graphic design, branding and packaging
- Neu für Sie—Photography
- This isn’t Happiness—Art, photography and design
- I’m not Wordy—Interior design, architecture and general photography
- Colossal—Art, design, and visual culture
- The Dieline—The most beautiful packaging design in the world
- Brand New—Branding and design commentary
- Lovely Package—Packaging and branding
- It’s Nice That—Graphic design and visual culture
- Friends of Type—Typography
- Co.Design—Misc design and broader industry news
- Quipsologies—Graphic design projects and notable design projects
- Ways We Work—Stories from design teams
- Design Milk—Architecture and interior design
- Remodelista—Interior design
- The Design Files—Interior design, lifestyle and food
- Laguna Bay—Minimalist architecture
- (Un)Digital—Illustration and design culture