Understanding inspiration

“Inspiration is everywhere.” You’ve heard it quoted at least once in your lifetime, but what do they actually mean by it? The “where do you get / find inspiration” question is the email I receive the most, which typically follows with the response of “everywhere.” On the other end I can hear the recipient saying “Yeah, yeah, yeah, typical” as they read my response. Instead of going into too much detail for each email, I’d thought it would make for a good blog post and general discussion. Here’s my attempt at defining and clarifying the “inspiration is everywhere” statement.

Inspiration is everywhere

Understanding the quote “inspiration is everywhere” is quite straight forward. The world around us is full of inspiration stocked to the ceiling with stimulating colors, textures, shapes, curves, arrangements, contrasts, similarities… well you get the point. However, since we are bombarded with such beautiful inspiration each time we walk out our front doors, we often take it for granted and passes through our minds as a quick thought to later be forgotten when we need it. Many only seem to look for inspiration when only they need it.

The key to inspiration is being a good recorder. Technology makes this very simple with camera phones, pocket-sized sketchbooks, iPads and amongst other things. Instead of inspirational occurrences becoming another passing moment, take a picture; it lasts longer. Make a record of everything that inspires or catches your eye and revisit these things when you start a new project.

For example: the grid for your website layout can be inspired by the balanced, yet unorthodox, arrangement of windows on old piece of architecture creating a unique layout for the blog section of your new site.

Also, having recently redesigned this blog, I can relate to playing the role of a “recorder.” The color palette was inspired by a book cover I came across while browsing a bookstore in Princeton, New Jersey, while the cross-hatching—acting as shading running along the sides— was inspired by my neighbors old little white fence that is half hanging over into my side (the way the fencing weaved and intertwined). The subtle grey texture was inspired by a newspaper-eske feel to put focus back on my content and purpose of this site: to read. A majority of what inspired this redesign was drawn by offline inspiration.

The power of push

All it takes is that one tiny inspirational moment to propel a project forward. From here it is often easier to build around the segment of inspiration. Great design excels in the tiniest of detail. I feel that many—starting a new website design for example—jump straight to online design galleries to drum up inspiration. All this typically does is embed a predetermined look, feel and flow to your work, often resulting in a similar look, style and flow of existing websites.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t be looking at what your peers are doing. Instead, look at online inspiration last. Flip through your recorded inspiration inventory or hop on a train to a near by city to work for the day. Even a small change in your environment can provide a world of difference and provoke new emotions.

Here’s a few examples:

  • Jason Santa Maria on his About page states that his “design sensibilities are heavily inspired by traditional print design and a deep love for typography.” I’m sure most of you have already, but if not, have a look at his work and you will see his inspiration-based print design background.
  • Yaron Schoen discusses his inspiration for his TeaJunkie Poster set as “mimicking the feeling” he got when walking around an exhibit.
  • Carsonified discusses their journey to redesign their company site, which in the end was inspired by a Gap Store.
  • Dan Mall states that his website is “an experiment in contrast: thick and thin, big and small, black and white. It takes obvious references from editorial design, specifically inspired by The New York Times and the L.A. Times.”

As you can see from a few examples above, their inspiration for web and print was discovered via an exploration and/or feeling from something a bit unconventional. Jason and Dan’s print to web influences, Yaron’s feeling applied to print, Carsonified’s exploration and recording of space.

Stop looking at the full picture

I’m a fan of Dribbble (there I said it!). Not only is it fun, but inspiring in the way it leaves room to be desired. Instead of drifting off into online “best of the web” galleries, I find myself looking at many beautiful 400px by 300px “shots” (Dribbble is basketball themed for those who don’t know) only to let my mind wonder off into how the rest will look. This play of curiosity lately has helped me work through a few design challenges of my own work.

In a way viewing these small screen crops is similar to drawing inspiration from everyday objects. It allows us to focus on that one small detail which we can use to power a new direction for our work. The fence and book cover colors used in this blogs stimulant was my own way of “cropping out” my neighbors yard and the remainder of the bookstore. By focusing and recording one inspiring moment and element I was able to move forward with my design and give it a more unique approach.

Understanding inspiration

Inspiration is about stimulation. It encourages the development of something new. We are often inspired because we like the character or spirit of an object, not because someone else did it therefore it must be “right.” Inspiration intrigues us to work towards an approach, not copy or mimic another’s. Inspiration acts as a fuel to catapult us in our own direction. Inspiration, for me, is trying something different.

Trends start and break because inspiration draws up something unusual and the problem is approached differently and accepted by a large group of people / designers. Don’t let your fear of fully actually inspired hinder the ability to push new boundaries in your work and explore new options.

Discussion and Comments

+ Add to the discussion
  1. Thank you for the post Brian – “recording” as you call it is definitely something I’ve grown more aware that I do recently. I hadn’t been able to explain where my ideas come from until relatively recently. Now I’m realizing it’s typically from the last few thousand things I’ve seen and taken note of.

  2. Matt Ward says:

    Hey Brian. Really great article. I think that the whole concept of inspiration really needs to be addressed, and this is a great discussion on the subject. I also wrote an article about inspiration a few weeks back, entitled The Myth of Inspiration, but I chose to talk about it a bit more theoretically.

    I like how this article is a little more practical! Great work, as always.

  3. Like so many things, inspiration is dependent on your general state. In other words, you have to foster the conditions to be inspired before you can actually be inspired. For example, have you ever had a breakthrough idea when you’re running on empty, staying up ’til 4am, eating junk food? I imagine not.

    Todd Henry of Accidental Creative has a great rule of thumb. By his logic, being inspired is having a “creative accident” and in order to maximize the number of accidents, you must achieve balance in five categories: time, energy, focus, stimulii, and relationships. Feeding these five will allow inspiration to flow to you.

    Instead of working on where to find inspiration, work on setting yourself up to be inspired. Find balance, and inspiration won’t be far behind.

    That and everything Brian just wrote.

  4. Gabrielle says:

    Great post as always!
    The paragraph about ‘Understanding Inspiration’ was especially well articulated.
    For me, being able to convey your interpretation is an essential part of being inspired. I believe inspiration can be taken from the work of others but only if you can redefine it with your own point of view.
    Otherwise its just mimicking.

  5. Inspiration is hard work. It is all about perseverance and doing the task (for me photographing) over and over again until the results show up that I like.

  6. Great article, Brian! I think there’s definitely something to be said for taking a break from your computer and drawing inspiration from real-world sources. For this very reason I believe that graphic and web designers should have at least a rudimentary ability to create something tangible, be it a simple sketch or wall-sized mural! Having said that, though, I think that you can’t just dismiss online inspiration, as there are many great sources there.

  7. Nice article. mood can sometimes be influential in getting inspiration :)

  8. Mike says:

    Good article! I plan on purchasing an iPhone 4 this month, it will be the first phone I’ve owned that has a camera. I keep having daydreams about having it about taking a bunch of pictures of random cool stuff that could inspire my next project.

  9. Cooper says:

    This is the best explanation of inspiration I’ve seen in awhile. My favorite place to look is architecture – just finding random buildings in whatever state they may be and using the layout the architect used in my designs. For instance, there’s a building being demolished next to my apartment now, and the stripped down look of the concrete offers a unique grid shape that’s completely one of a kind

  10. Chris says:

    I think stepping outside your routine really helps to inspire. Doing new things in new ways forces you to engage in what you are doing and once you are engaged you are more likely to find something that draws your interest.

    Beyond that I think that not all inspiration will be visual, but also consider the things you feel, smell, taste hear.

  11. Mike says:

    Inspiration is what drives inventors, innovators, artists, architects and the great writers of our time.

  12. Birgit says:

    great read.

    It’s important to always remind oneself to seek inspiration not only from web design galleries, but step back from the computer once in a while. I have experienced myself that the best ideas start to flow when you’re far away from the computer, in a stimulating surrounding (for me, nature works best).

    Also, I think that the “reality filters” in creative people work differently. They seem to block less of the incoming information (on a subconscious level, that is). This certainly can be learned, but it has to be trained :)

    BTW, I really love your new website design. Brilliant typography work. It’s a joy to read the texts!

  13. Design is really the curation of our various observations of the world. Our job is to organize information more effectively, taking into account what we’ve seen already.

    This is a great post — I like that it walks the line between idealism and pragmatism.

  14. Excellent post, Brian! I agree with all of your points. I used to be one of those people that derived all their inspiration from the galleries, but of late, I’ve been doing that less and less. I read Dribbble almost religiously, and Forrst has been a popular choice for me lately, as well, with Behance as my backup.

    Maybe it has something to do with your maturity level as a designer – I’ve definitely grown a ton since I read galleries and found all of my inspiration on the web. I’ve since branched out, discovered things about my own style, and grown as a designer.

    Inspiration is definitely something that people take for granted and don’t really think nearly enough about. It is more complex than we tend to give it credit for. We often look for it in the wrong places and, even then, we usually just look at the very surface of it, instead of really delving in and getting a feel for the work, the style, and the aesthetics behind it.

    Thank you for this article. I look forward to reading more from you, as always.

  15. Amy Haywood says:

    Thanks for you the post. — The last couple of paragraphs really resonate. I think motivation: seeing something and knowing the only appropriate response to create something yourself, is what separates inspiration from design trends.

  16. Issac says:

    This article has inspired me at great scale.

  17. Jimmy says:

    Really amazing post about inspiration. In the last paragraphs strongly show about inspiration. Thanks for sharing.

  18. Trent Walton says:

    The key to inspiration is being a good recorder.

    I love that & have found that to be true in my own life. Some of the most fun I’ve had designing has been initiated by stuff I’ve found lying around in an old garage or some signage on an old Texas road.

  19. Rory says:

    Great article, I’m new to ‘design cubicle’ and I’m very impressed. Proper articles to just posting for the sake of it, I like it guys.

    Regarding inspiration, I find getting away from my Mac (other computers are available) for a while is good. Recently the weathers been good so I have been going for walks around the park. Seeing nature in all its bloom not only relaxs me but the colours are so vibrant they naturally give me colour scheme ideas.

  20. Peach says:

    I get normally my inspiration in my free time. It is much more difficult, if you must have an inspiration. Than you will never get the best one. The best ideas I have when I rest on the couch, with relaxing music on a very low level. So I get the idea, the best idea, the best inspiration. But I think it depends very much form person to person, so everone has to find his methode.

  21. Laurie says:

    Following that spark of insight – that seed of an idea that forces us to take notice, then taking action – is what separates great from mediocre design. While designers look outward at other designer’s gardens through a plethora of media, the actual design process should come from one’s gut / intuition as starting point. Great design follows those initial sparks of inspiration which can lead to places of wonder + wow, through discovery and innovation. It takes courage as it can take you into unchartered territory, but… what a trip. If you get lost, then look outward, but get back on course using using your intuition as your GPS.

  22. Issac says:

    This article has given me a lot of inspiration.

  23. Jae Xavier says:

    when creative block strikes, its a terrifying thing.

    reading posts like this helps break those blocks and as you had mentioned, use inspiration effectively. sometimes it just comes and goes, like the wind.

  24. Brian:
    Had not heard of Dribble, will have to check it out.

    Recently got the iPad and I will say I wish I had gotten the one with the camera on it for recording/capturing items on a whim.

    Technology has certainly made it easy for us to quickly capture information and save it for easy retrieval at a later point. Of course, the hardest part for some may be to revisit what has been captured.

  25. Laurie says:

    More on inspiration: one has to simply BE in the present moment and BE open to the unexpected. Feed the brain regularly with great reading – the latest periodicals + books in libraries. I’m often amazed at the a-ha moments that come from doing this. It can lead me off tangent to cool places.

  26. Great article Brian and I also like your Website design, simple but very attractive.

    About inspiration, the article has all the inspiration in it. What I think about inspiration is it’s hardworking that keep you motivated.

  27. Glazemoo says:

    Nobody never discussed the matter like you. Can I call this an inspiration. May be.

  28. ryanfmc says:

    What we have here is a designer who loves what they do, to talk with such passion is such s breath of fresh air! Cheers.

  29. Custom Logo says:

    The idea that “inspiration is everywhere” can be a double edged sword :) It can often be distracting especially when you are trying to focus on the one project. I find even taking a walk along the beach a distraction if I have a deadline to meet because I see so much in terms of shape, movement and color – will have to get an ipad so I can record these ideas as I go :)

Brian Hoff
About Brian Hoff: Designer, Writer and Speaker

I’m a graphic designer living in Brooklyn, New York who loves creating compelling and useful websites and memorable interactions across the web. When I’m not designing I can be found writing, speaking and occasionally part-time teaching at colleges — all on the subject of design. I started this blog to share my passion and experiences with designers and clients. I'm most active on Twitter; say hello: