Inspiration is a key component of visual design. It’s a reference point that kick-starts the creative process and a starting point for producing beautiful, visually pleasing solutions in response to a well-defined problem. But honestly, how to summon inspiration is a total mystery to me.
It’s a fleeting, rarely spontaneous feeling, and it’s almost never there when I 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 need to overcome. But if you’re anything like me, finding inspiration is something that takes considerable work.
Despite having been paid to design for over 15 years, I’m not someone who wakes up feeling naturally inspired; I wish I were, but that’s simply not the case. The reality is that each time I’m required to pull together a visual concept, I almost certainly spend the first portion of the day totally and utterly lost for ideas. This is the exact moment I need inspiration to strike—and the point when frantically clicking through Dribbble or looking to the sky for divine intervention only makes matters worse.
So 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 images I have saved on my computer and categorized using an app (I use the amazing Pixave, but Google Photos or Pinterest work well, too). These are images that I’ve been storing for over 10 years that sit quietly in their thousands waiting for their time to shine.
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, categorize it (by type of image, color, visual device, etc.) and forget about it.
On the face of it, that doesn’t sound like a particularly valuable resource for inspiration, but you’d be surprised. At an instant, I can look at all the photographs, color sets, or illustrations that have ever grabbed my attention — from thousands of different creators — and let my mind wander. 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 also become an interesting review of how my tastes have evolved over time.
Ultimately this collection has become the single greatest source of inspiration for me — perfect for when my mind is blank.
But here’s the thing: Of the tens of thousands of images I’ve saved, you won’t find a single website, screenshot, or app. Which might sound strange, considering I design software for a living. Instead, what I find sparks the most inspiration is obscure architecture, weird and wonderful packaging, hand-drawn type, unusual illustrations, vibrant photographs, and experimental branding projects.
Despite being different in nature to the work I’m doing, these images are still able to spark a hundred ideas, suggest interesting color palettes, 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.
I’ve found the key to inspiration is to look sideways at other industries and patterns. After all, it’s pretty difficult to create something unique if you’re looking in just one direction. Instead, try looking at the visual output of other disciplines and industries. Allow your mind to absorb the creative excellence of others and pursue beauty, rather than utility.
If you’re keen to start creating your own library or extend your visual reading list, the following should serve as a good starting point to your creative journey: