How To Gather Inspiration and Generate Ideas

Ideas are the lifeblood for a web designer. You need ideas to get you started on any new project. Where do those ideas comes from? Where do you find inspiration? How do you develop a process to have a never ending stream of ideas at your disposal?

Your process will usually be to collect as many ideas as possible, spend time working on the ones you think have potential, and then have a handful of ideas to work through in greater detail.

This post will mainly be concerned with the first part of the process, that of finding inspiration, collecting ideas, and recording them somewhere.

This is what I do when I lack inspiration

Drawing Inspiration

Ideas can come from anywhere. No list can honestly provide every source of inspiration from which you can draw. Ultimately you’ll have to develop your own sources of ideas and inspiration, however here are a few sources that I’ve drawn design inspiration from.

  • Art is generally inspiring. It’s also a great way to study things like composition, color, and expression.
  • Magazine Design can show you design in another medium, one that has been applying solid design principles for a long time.
  • Nature is the foundation of everything.
  • Architecture is great way to see solutions to the problems of using space.
  • Works of Fiction inspire in general and if you choose your authors well they can teach you how to write better.
  • Works of Non-fiction usually teach me something new which I always find inspirational.
  • Daily Experiences have much more inspiration than we realize. Train yourself to observe what you typically take for granted.
  • Television has these things called commercials. You may have heard of them. Some are designed rather well. It can also be very interesting to pick a network and observe everything they do to continue to promote and brand themselves and their other projects.
  • Movies inspire through storytelling and through amazing visuals.
  • Conversations with people offline and online can easily lead to new ideas. None of us knows everything and having people to bounce ideas off of is a great way to see your ideas from a different perspective
  • Music is generally inspiring. It’s also a great way to study things like rhythm and flow and to understand how space works. You can add poetry here as well since it can teach you many of the same things, especially spoken poetry.

Composing musical notes for inspiration

The above list is really just a brain dump. My point is that there is no limit to where ideas and inspiration can come from. Inspiration can come from anywhere and everywhere. You have to be open to being inspired and pay attention to those things that inspire you.

Each of us is different and originality comes from our differences. You shouldn’t necessarily take inspiration from the exact same list of sources as I do and I shouldn’t take inspiration from the exact same list of sources you do. We’ll share some things on our lists as well as have our differences.

One thing you might have noticed in the above lists is that I didn’t include other websites as a source of inspiration for designing your own. We all look at other sites, including myself, but more and more I try to stay away from using other sites as inspiration, since I think it leads to a more of the same kind of aesthetic. I’m as guilty of this more of the same as anyone, but I’m working toward changing that as best I can.

I do look at other sites to see how they might have solved a particular problem, but I try not to lean on their aesthetics.

File folders

Swipe Files

One thing you do need to do with your ideas is record them somewhere. Ideas are fleeting and if you don’t get them down somewhere they have a tendency not to be around when you need or want them. Swipe files are a well known practice for collecting ideas.

I’d like to tell you I have a wonderful swipe file all set up with easy access to all the ideas and inspiration I’ve collected, but I don’t. At the moment I have several different swipe files each associated with a specific project or ongoing area of my work like this blog.

For example I’ve been collecting inspiration for a redesign and what I collect ends up in a folder on my MacBook. With this blog I’ve been using MacJournal the last few months and each new idea gets it’s own blank entry which I then fill in with ideas and links I’m collecting for that post. Anything I read online that I want to save gets bookmarked and tagged at delicious.

My system works for the most part, but there are times when something I want to use in one place has been saved in another and I can’t remember where. I’ve been thinking it would be better to have everything in one place, perhaps a database like Yojimbo that allows me to tag everything in a variety of ways for easy recall. Evernote is another possibility I’m considering.

If you have suggestions I’m open to ideas.

Sketchbook and pen

Generating Ideas

Collecting inspiration is one thing. Generating ideas from inspiration or from within is another. There are a few ways you can generate ideas and these are four that have worked for me.

  • Brainstorming – When brainstorming I usually just write down any idea that comes to me as a word or phrase. The goal is to jot down as many things as possible without spending much time thinking about any of them except to let them lead to new ideas. Often with brainstorming my result is a long list, which I later go back to and attempt to organize and cull.
  • Free form writing – This is one of my preferred methods. It’s similar to the above except I write sentences and sentence fragments. The act of writing tends to get my brain working a little more and gets the ideas flowing. Sometimes I’ll do this with pen and paper and other times it’s typing away in a .txt file.
  • Sketching – Sometimes words alone aren’t enough and sketching is a better way to generate ideas. I’m not as good at picking up a sketchbook as often as I should and I tend to use this method when an idea begins to form visually in my head. Sometimes it’s an idea for a new design and sometimes it’s just some concept that occurs to me as an image rather than in words.
  • Mind Mapping – I see mind mapping mainly as a way to brainstorm in a more visual way by showing connections between similar and dissimilar ideas. For some reason mind mapping hasn’t always worked well for me, but I come back to it from time to time. My sense is that mind mapping is a great way to see how different ideas are connected to each other.

If you work in a team you may find something like parallel design or design flash mobs good techniques to use to generate more ideas quickly.

One thing I would suggest is not to get locked into a single way of generating ideas. When you do things in the same routine way you tend to come up with the same routine ideas. Exploring new ways of generating ideas will only stir your creative juices differently and have you drawing from different internal sources and processes.

Digital typographic art of the word prime

Priming Yourself for New Ideas

The key to finding inspiration and generating ideas is to be ready for it. You have to prime yourself to be open to the process of collecting and generating new ideas. One way is to make sure you always have something at hand to record any ideas, thoughts, images that come to your conscious mind.

In the past this would have meant carrying around a sketchbook or notebook and it still can. Today smart phones can also work well as many allow for voice recording, typing and even hand writing. Most are also equipped with a camera.

Being able to collect inspiration shouldn’t really be a problem with modern technology. You do have to train yourself to use the technology though. And again carrying around a sketchbook or notebook still works well.

Often I’ll carry a camera with me even when I have no specific intention of taking pictures. I may find myself waiting on a friend and while waiting I’ll capture some images of whatever happens to be around me. It might be a building or a scene from nature or a close up of a stone or tree. Any might lead to general inspiration or something specific I can apply to a new design.

Perhaps just as important to carrying the tools to record inspiration is to prime your subconscious to be receptive to ideas and to train yourself to see connections between seemingly unrelated concepts. The best way to do this is to diversify what you take in and where you draw inspiration.

  • Take a different route to work or the grocery store
  • Shake up any routine you have just to shake it up
  • Read magazines, books, blogs, etc. from outside your industry
  • Use a different tool to accomplish the same task
  • Visit some place you’ve never been
  • Take a class to learn something new

You’re trying to cast as wide a net as possible in your experiences and with the input you take in. When you lock yourself into doing things the same way with the same tools from the same places, the result will be something similar to what you’ve done before.

Another way to prime yourself is to work on a problem and then let it sit. While you may not be consciously working on a solution, your subconscious is still seeking one. It’s always interesting how many things you notice that you had previously taken for granted when they have the potential to help with a problem you’ve been working on.

The key is to diversify the information and experiences you take in.

That's the lovely thing about having an idea. There's many ways it can go.

Summary

Ideas are the foundation of creative pursuits. You can seek ideas from without by being inspired by the work of others and the everyday things around you. You can also generate ideas from within. There is no one source of inspiration or single way to generate ideas. You have to find what works for you.

The key to having a seemingly endless stream of ideas of things to inspire you is to diversify your sources of input and to develop ideas in a variety of ways. You want to open up your world to as many new experiences as possible.

If you can prime yourself to be receptive to new inputs and learn to increase your powers of observation you should find ideas everywhere and you should have a never ending stream of inspiration for your creative endeavors.

Download a free sample from my book, Design Fundamentals.

5 comments

  1. Hey, to respond to your written words “If you have suggestions I’m open to ideas”. Have you tried Pinterest as a tool for collecting ideas?

    Please understand the fact that, it is not just for single girls planning their weddings. Or housewives sharing recipes.

    It is for everyone who wishes to collect ideas into one single space. I use it myself for collecting ideas in about 18 fields, but my Art & Design board is the one I use the most.

    I believe you will find at least something you like: http://www.pinterest.com/sannanas/art-design/

    Just you know, dont be scared because of the girly layout or of all the women hanging out there. You might fit just right in anyway :)

    Sanna

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