A List Apart

Laura Kalbag on Freelance Design


“Where do you get your inspiration from?” It’s an odd question that designers ask each other. But it’s not asking what motivates us to do our work, or what makes us want to be designers in the first place.

What is inspiration?

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When we’re asked where we get our inspiration from, we’re usually being asked where we find that little seed of an idea that grows into a creative solution to a problem.

As a web designer, the expected answer is often a CSS or Responsive Web Design gallery website, and the underlying question is, Where do you pinch your best ideas from?

When I was in high school, art class exercises were usually formed of slavishly copying an artist’s work. We’d use the tools and techniques the artist used in order to better understand how and why the work was created. This helped us experience the process the artist used to create such work.

A study of eyes in different paintings from my art class when I was 17.

Following these exercises, we would usually complete a piece of our own work, with subject matter of our choosing, but using the same tools and techniques as the artist. Here we were learning how to apply the artists’ thinking in the context of our own work.

A mug wrapped in paper and string, inspired by the style of Christo and Jeanne-Claude.

Researching solutions

Every design problem is unique. The context, environment, audience, and goals will never be the same again. But the problems we’re solving can be similar to those that went before. These similarities are what we can use to research potential solutions. When we’re researching the solutions through the experience and ideas of others, it’s like being back in art class again. We’re learning how it feels to use other designers’ tools and techniques, so that we can discover what might suit our own processes. Our wide-ranging explorations lead us each to find inspiration in a different artist or technique. Just as every design problem is unique, there’s no single designer, book, or gallery site that can solve every design problem.

Borrowing ideas isn’t a bad practice. We can research and learn from these resources, although to copy their aesthetics or functionality in their entirety is bad practice. If we copy other designers’ work, regardless of the context of their origins or our projects, we won’t have learned anything, and it will likely result in poor work and an inappropriate solution.

Evolving resources

I was discussing inspiration with my friend Bevan Stephens a few weeks ago. We talked about how, at some point in our design careers, we seemed to stop looking for ideas in galleries and similar resources. We didn’t realize it at the time, but somehow we’d gained confidence, and felt we didn’t need to actively search for ideas from aesthetic showcases anymore.

When we start out, we are usually very conscious of every design decision we make. It takes time for us to familiarize ourselves with our preferred rules and patterns. The more experience we get, the more subconscious these design decisions become. We can make a decision without any conscious justification, although we can then unravel our reasoning in a perfectly clear way. I believe this confidence comes to all designers with time.

A similar thing happens with the way we research solutions. We spend a huge amount of time interacting with other designers’ work; in our research and in the products we use. Sometimes a solution, or an element of the execution, will stand out to us. We may just absorb the effectiveness (or ineffectiveness). Or we’ll remind ourselves to save it for later, in a notebook, some kind of resources library, or just in our heads.

The more experience we have, the greater the osmosis. The viewing and filing of the solutions becomes quicker, more automatic. We become more efficient at storing the information and ideas that we need.

The exceptions

Whilst I think I’m getting better at subconsciously storing ideas and potential solutions, occasionally I find myself returning to the design galleries. It’s not usually for a general browse, but more often for looking at a specific category, a particular type of website. I find myself needing to learn again. I seek out ideas from gallery sites when I’m feeling unsure. This usually happens when the context of a project is new to me. It’s a different type of site, product, audience, or approach. I need to supplement my mental library of ideas. I’m not blindly copying work like I might have done when I was starting out, I’m now better at identifying when I need more resources to help me understand a problem. I understand more about how to appropriate ideas and techniques without copying. Still, I need to bolster my confidence. I want to feel as though I know what I’m working with.

Design as a practice and process stays constant, but the technology, audiences and other outputs change around us. We will always be able to apply our skills of seeing, solving problems and making decisions, but the industry standards and best techniques are always changing. The evolving web means we need to keep learning. Still, we need to be smart about how we learn, and understand the difference between learning and copying so we don’t fall back on the work of others when we should be innovating for ourselves.

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