For Toronto-based, Ronnie LeBow, owner and creative director at LEBOW, inspiration often comes while taking a shower. Susan Barnabee Long, a graphic designer based in Illinois, prefers to tuck problems away in a corner of her mind while they percolate.
Design inspiration is all around us. It can be found in music, literature and other creative disciplines such as architecture, interior design, product design, illustration and photography. It’s simply a matter of paying attention. For example, children can be an abounding source of creative inspiration.
They see the world around them in an untainted, innocent way. Brian Mays, Director of Creative Development at Heritage Hall in Oklahoma, noted, “For me it’s playing with my oldest son, whether it’s LEGO®, video games or action figures. He has far fewer boundaries and his world is totally wide open. Impossibilities don’t exist to him!”
I find inspiration in architecture, books and also photography. In days gone by, that meant leafing through stock photo catalogs. These days it often means sitting in front of this box clicking “Next,” for hours on various stock photography sites. Other times, it comes in the form of a quote that resonates with me or a conversation. A simple word or two can spark an idea for an article, logo, site design or brochure.
Milton Glaser once said, “There are three responses to a piece of design – yes, no, and WOW! Wow is the one to aim for.” A great source of inspiration can guide us to that “wow” factor, if we have the courage to allow it. And it often takes courage. Our design inspiration and its subsequent ideas and concepts can involve taking risks. It can involve doing something completely new and unproven. That can be scary territory.
American entrepreneur, author and motivational speaker, Jim Rohn, was credited with the quote, “If you are not willing to risk the unusual, you will have to settle for the ordinary.” Great graphic design often means taking a risk. You might fall flat on your face, but you might also create something brilliant that goes beyond fulfilling the obvious goals of a design.
Chad Neuman interviewed David Carson for Layers Magazine. When asked where he finds sources of inspiration, Carson replied, “My environment always influences me. I’m always taking photos and I believe things I see and experience influence the work. Not directly, but indirectly in some shape or color or something that registers. The ocean has always played a big part in my life, but it’s hard to say exactly what that influence is in regards to the work. But I’m always scanning the environment I’m in, and I’m sure it ends up in the work.
I think it’s really important that designers put themselves into the work. No one else has your background, upbringing, life experiences, and if you can put a bit of that into your work, two things will happen: you’ll enjoy the work more, and you’ll do your best work. Otherwise, we don’t really need designers—anyone can buy the same programs and learn to do “reasonable, safe” design.”
Getting A Handle On Inspiration
How often has something inspired a great idea, only to be forgotten by the time you returned to your workspace? Odds are, the answer is, “All too often.”
Diaries, journals and the moleskin notebook are indispensable tools for a graphic designer’s note-taking and sketching. Mobile phones and tablets are also excellent and note-taking apps abound.
The Web is, naturally, an outstanding resource for creative inspiration. We are fortunate to live during a time when the collective knowledge of mankind is just a click away. Before the Web, designers usually found their muse at a library, bookstore, magazine stand, museums and such. One of my personal favorites was looking through the luscious samples my paper company rep brought by the office.
In addition to stock image sites, we are blessed with several sites that can feed your inspiration addiction. Here are just a few:
In addition, there are numerous graphic design blogs, award sites and portfolio sites. When you’re hunting down creative inspiration, Google.com can be your best friend.
As mentioned, architecture is another source of creative inspiration for many graphic designers. I’ve seen brochures and other design items that make use of a building’s seemingly small architectural detail as the foundation for a printed piece, website and even a brand. The same goes for fine art.
Is there a danger of succumbing to the temptation of copying? A resounding, “Maybe,” is the likely answer. It’s been said that copying one person is plagiarism. Copying several is called “research.” It’s one thing to directly rip off a design. It’s another to review a design in order to learn how it ticks, or why it’s compelling. It might be an unusual layout, distinctive color palette or typography. It might be the use of asymmetry, dynamic tension or juxtaposition between various elements. How can you use those techniques in your work?
The Guardian.com carries an excellent article, titled, “Top artists reveal how to find creative inspiration.” Several noted creatives share what inspires them and how they put it into action. It’s worth a peek.
In closing, consider another quote from David Carson, also found in the Layers article:
“Do what you love, trust your gut, your instincts, and intuition. And remember the definition of a good job: If you could afford to, if money wasn’t an issue, would you do the same work? If you would, you’ve got a great job! If you wouldn’t, what’s the point? You’re going to be dead a long time. So find that thing, whatever it is, that you love doing, and enjoy going to work for, and not watch the clock or wait for weekends and holidays.”
Wise words, Mr. Carson.