Sources of Design Inspiration for Web & Graphic Designers
What’s the secret ingredient to excellent web and graphic design? Some would say it’s hard work. Others would point out experience as being the key contributing factor.
However, it’s safe to say that the inspiration makes the difference between a solid piece of design and that which will go down in history as one-of-a-kind.
But, as always, there’s a catch.
Creativity is tough. How do you manage to stay on the ball every day, all day?
The truth is, you cannot – not really. Instead, you occasionally end up stuck in a rut where every design feels like a variation of the same thing.
The thing is, the longer you keep that going, the harder it can be to get your mojo back. Sometimes it feels like the walls of mundanity are closing in and everything you do seems like a knock-off of something somebody else has already done. You can lose your confidence. You can lose your faith.
In those moments, you need to find a way to knock yourself out of the path you are on and venture further afield into areas unknown. And that, you’ve got to do yourself.
That said, there are plenty of catalysts out there that can help you find your way. It is just a question of what kind of incentive you are looking for. Are you looking for direct or indirect inspiration?
But what is inspiration anyways? And are there ways web and graphic designers can boost their inspiration levels to create something extraordinary? Let’s find out.
What Is Inspiration?
According to the Lexico Dictionary, inspiration is:
But apart from being a concept used to describe the acquiring of exciting new ideas, inspiration is also a neurological process.
In 2004, a group of researchers set out to study the science behind this elusive feeling. They used a combination of functional magnetic resonance imaging and EEG. They found that those experiencing “Aha!” or “Eureka!” moments had heightened brain activity in the anterior superior temporal gyrus, a part of the right temporal lobe.
So, why does this matter? It matters to those seeking inspiration because the superior temporal gyrus plays a role in perceiving emotions, auditory processing, language acquisition, and social cognition. It’s also linked to complex language skills in that it ties together information that is distantly related.
In other words, inspiration, or insight, can be viewed as a process during which people (and creatives) tie together the information they haven’t realised was connected until that moment.
Why Is Inspiration Essential in the Web & Graphic Design Process?
Now that you have a better idea of what inspiration is, you might be wondering: Why do web and graphic design have to be inspired?
The truth is, there are several answers to this question.
One of the first reasons designers need inspiration when coming up with graphic solutions is that there seems to be a shortage of originality nowadays.
In 2020, a group of scientists set out to measure the level of originality in today’s web design trends. And, having studied more than 10,000 websites, they came to a simple conclusion.
Nowadays, most websites look the same.
Of course, if sameness only impacted appearances, this might not even have been a problem. After all, some visual choices, like ample negative space, simple logo design, psychologically-based colour schemes, make sense for brands trying to achieve their goals (or boost conversions).
Moreover, uniformity in web design encourages the adoption of essential accessibility standards, making the internet a more welcoming place to a larger group of people.
However, there is an issue with all websites looking similar. Following aesthetic trends doesn’t always give small brands the best solutions for their needs. Sure, these fads may serve big brands, offering them benefits and visually distinguishing them from the competition. But, more often than not, following trends leaves smaller businesses scrambling to fit in, lowering their chances of success because they’re making design choices not optimised for their branding identity.
Another reason creators need inspiration is that original design plays a crucial role in branding and brand performance.
For example, one survey from Adobe found that aesthetically pleasing design improved customer engagement. According to the data, 59% of consumers preferred to consume beautiful content. Conversely, only 41% chose to spend time interacting with simple and plain web pages.
Moreover, research has proven that original and inspired web design positively impacts brand trust. According to data, 86% of people prioritise authenticity when choosing what brands to support.
Then, there is also the fact that people consider aesthetics when making purchasing decisions. A study from 2021 found that consumer shopping behaviour is influenced by product packaging, supporting the hypothesis that beautiful and original designs promote conversions and brand success.
Types of Design Inspiration Sources
Now you know why design inspiration is crucial to the creative process. Moreover, you understand the risks of opting for an unoriginal design. So, you might find yourself wondering: What are the sources of design inspiration for web and graphic designers.
Well, on the whole, there are two types of design inspiration you need to know about:
- Direct design inspiration
- Indirect design inspiration
Let’s go into what these are and what makes them different from each other.
Direct Design Inspiration
- Laurence King
- Heller, Steven (Author)
- English (Publication Language)
- 128 Pages - 05/10/2016 (Publication Date) - Laurence King Publishing (Publisher)
This type of inspiration comes directly from the field of design.
In other words, you’ll find this kind of inspiration in literature, magazines, and the work of other designers. Browsing existing works of art can be a fantastic way to get a quick shot of design inspiration, but it can also reveal new ways for you to make existing ideas a part of your work.
Drawing inspiration from existing pieces of art is nothing new.
Stravinsky’s quote that “Lesser artists borrow, great artists, steal” was a favourite of Pablo Picasso and Steve Jobs. These innovators were capable of completely disrupting their fields at the time of their lives. And, in part, this was because they understood the importance of direct design inspiration.
But they were not the only ones whose reliance on direct inspiration changed our world. The greatest playwright ever known, William Shakespeare is famous for having stolen ideas, characters, and even entire plotlines from his contemporaries.
Now, you may be thinking how great this is. After all, wouldn’t it be excellent if, every time you were stuck for an idea, you could just “borrow” one from a designer you admire?
Unfortunately, direct design inspiration isn’t always the best way to go about your creative process.
When you only rely on direct design inspiration, there is a much greater chance your work will end up being derivative and repetitive. Furthermore, you will most likely be getting your inspiration from the same sources as the rest of the design world.
To avoid that trap, you need to ensure that whatever you take from others in your field is allowed to evolve. Be sure to play with it and not accept it as is.
One good way to do this is to extract what is so exciting to you about a particular style of design.
For example, if you’re inspired by minimalistic website design, consider its main features and benefits. Like the one from Grege, a pared-down homepage is an excellent instance of traditional minimal web design.
The problem with this page, however, is that it doesn’t lend itself to communicating value propositions or driving conversions.
On the other hand, Affinda also utilises minimalist web design, although it adapts it to its needs.
By opting for a black background and placing a unique value proposition and CTA button in the hero section, this company keeps things simple. However, it also ensures that it prioritises function over aesthetics, showing that direct design inspiration can lead to excellent web design as long as it’s fully optimised to serve a brand’s purposes.
So if you see something that inspires you, you grab a piece of paper and create a mindmap to figure out why it does so.
Is it the form? The lines? The concept? Some combination thereof?
Why is this more inspiring than other things you’ve seen? Is it the natural evolution or progression of another idea? Can you take it a step further? How far can you stretch the concept before you are no longer excited?
Indirect Design Inspiration
This form of design inspiration is found further afield, outside of what you (and more importantly, the rest of the industry) would typically look at.
Here you’ll have to work much harder to incorporate the ideas into your work, as they are not directly related to what you are doing.
It will take far more lateral thinking.
Nonetheless, if you do find inspiration here, it is bound to be far more leftfield than anything you’ll likely find in areas of direct inspiration. You will thus have a greater likelihood of creating something completely original.
Sure, you might have to work harder. But the end result could very well be worth the effort – especially if you’re looking to shake things up.
For those not familiar with the concept of lateral thinking, it is all about creating the potential for your mind to make unusual connections and think outside the box. So, to get the most out of lateral thinking (and indirect design inspiration), make sure to realise that no idea is wrong, however silly it may seem.
Because, sometimes, a superb idea might be hidden behind a silly one.
For example, consider writing. Sometimes, writers are so focused on composing the best piece possible that they work themselves into a state of writer’s block. So, to kill the inner critic, some writers have started using the most dangerous writing app. Here if you stop writing for 5 seconds, everything you’ve written gets deleted. It’s an amazing way to push yourself to put thoughts to the page as well as to embrace silly ideas for all they have to offer.
The same principle can be applied to graphic design as well. To some, the idea of representing people’s feedback as unusual shapes in an animated video, as done by Optimal Workshop, might seem silly. But to others, it’s a great example of indirect design inspiration, which clearly shows that the artist was inspired by Cubism and found a creative way to bring it to life in the 21st century.
Sources of Direct Inspiration
Now, you probably have a significant number of websites that you comb through for direct design inspiration. That said, I feel a few have to be mentioned.
If you are not here to find out about new sites, go ahead and skip down to the ‘Indirect inspiration’ part, where I’ll explore some other ways of provoking your creativity.
UI Parade: In websites and apps, it’s all about the details. That’s why you’ve got to check out UI Parade, where they find those little details that are both beautiful and create a great user experience. The site focuses on particulars where you might have gotten a touch lazy – like progress bars, search boxes, and pagination, and by doing so, hopefully, it gives you new insights and new inspiration. Not only are the elements beautiful in and of themselves, but the site takes the extra step of explaining why they work, which – as you may remember – is what is the difference between the inspirational and the derivative.
Awwwards: This fantastic site showcases the best of the web’s agencies, designers, and developers worldwide, according to several professional judges. As a result, the content looks incredible, works well, engages, and pushes the boundaries. This is a great place to see what the best are doing. Then the challenge becomes to do it even better.
Design Taxi: Forbes Magazine said that this is one of the “Top Five Sites for Keeping up with Creativity and Design.” And even though they are not all about design, they are still big enough to say something like that, and it means something. Besides, it is just a great website.
Abduzeedo: To give you an idea of the site’s quality, the founder now works as a senior designer at Google. And though his loss is sorely felt, they still manage to produce at least 80 articles every month to inspire you, including stuff about design, tutorials, free wallpaper, and other resources.
Sources of Indirect Inspiration
Indirect design inspiration is a lot more dispersed than its direct counterpart. And, interestingly enough, it can come from anywhere: art history, meditation, or even playing solitaire.
Playing cards is what Maya Angelou did. She famously talked about her little mind and her extraordinary mind. It was the latter that had the big ideas. But, it could only get around to having them if she made sure the little mind was distracted. And so, she would play cards or do crossword puzzles, making sure her great mind had the freedom it needed to work and come up with exciting new ideas.
This is excellent advice. It doesn’t just show the importance of freedom for creative thought. It also points out that indirect design inspiration can come from a wide variety of things. Even those that seem entirely mundane at first glance.
However, the best part about sourcing indirect design inspiration is that science has some pretty exciting solutions.
Music & Background Noise
One of the easiest ways to gather creative inspiration is to put on some music.
A study from 2017 found that listening to certain types of classical music, namely “happy” classical music,” led to positive outcomes in people’s creative cognition. So, next time you lack the drive to create, why not put on some Mozart or Strauss and let the notes inspire your designs?
It’s also worth mentioning that listening to music can help professionals in the IT industry develop a more positive attitude towards their work, as proven in this research study from 2005.
If you’re unsure how music can help your design, you need not look any further than the creative duo Invisible Creature. Their work for the Foo Fighters album cover is a spectacular example of how sounds and visuals work together.
Another super-effective source of indirect design inspiration is, of course, travel.
Seeing new places is a fantastic way to gather indirect inspiration. Just check out this illustration by designer Brad Cuzen, inspired by a trip to New York.
For example, some people explore their neighbourhoods when stuck in a creative rut. They might go browsing through shops, particularly cheap ones with poor design. Or, they walk through suburbs and consider the buildings (beautiful or hideous, it doesn’t matter). Then, they try to work out why those houses were such a good or bad idea.
Exploring new places (locally or globally) also helps the brain evolve. One study, in particular, looked at the way people’s creative cognition changed before and after taking a vacation. The results showed that, although creativity itself stayed the same, cognitive flexibility increased after travelling, showing that exposing the brain to new environments effectively boosts neuroplasticity.
Taking a Walk
Another excellent way to become inspired is to go for a simple walk.
A study from Stanford set out to find out whether you could use walking to boost problem-solving.
Interestingly enough, the study found that taking a walk caused as many as 81% of the participants to see an improvement in their divergent thinking.
Now, because divergent thinking, essentially, refers to the ability to find creative solutions that you can consider as being “outside the box,” it’s easy to conclude that a great way to gather design inspiration for your next web or graphic design project might just be a 30-minute walk during your lunch break.
Another excellent indirect source of inspiration for designers is, quite unexpectedly, a rich social life.
It’s been known for a long time that nurturing social relationships boosts creativity. For example, both structured and unstructured social gatherings have been shown to boost workplace creativity.
But the main reason it’s so important to have a healthy social life when seeking inspiration is because human interaction significantly boosts emotional wellbeing.
A study by Gallup found that having a best friend at work significantly increases engagement and leads to increases in work quality. Moreover, the study discovered that increasing the number of social hours in a day significantly decreased stress, which is another important factor in gathering inspiration for creative work.
According to the broaden-and-build theory of positive thinking, positive emotions broaden our perspective and allow us to be more creative. On the other hand, stress, anger, frustration, doubt, and exhaustion narrow our focus and make us less capable of divergent thinking.
Taking Time Off
Finally, as you’re looking for indirect sources of design inspiration, don’t forget to give yourself some space to take time away.
From what? From everything. Your computer, your work, your sketchbook, your phone, your boss, your clients, your house, from your thought patterns.
Sometimes inspiration lies in distraction or doing nothing.
Don’t think you have the time for that? Trust me, you do.
Often a little rest can go a long way. Having the opportunity to recharge your brain and your creative juices will allow you to solve your problems much faster.
Think about it as you would about a 5.000-piece puzzle. If you keep staring at the pieces, you’ll get overwhelmed and stuck in a rut. But if you take some time off, you’ll gather the mental clarity needed to solve a piece of the puzzle in a matter of minutes instead of taking days to complete the task.
Essentially, creativity is not about how much you work. It is how productive you are. So don’t be afraid to give yourself the freedom required to boost your productivity – even if it means doing slightly less for the time being.
The Difference Between Good Design and Great Design
The difference between good design and great design is that the former has the right answer. The latter, however, asks the right question.
You might find yourself thinking: what does this mean? Well, it’s pretty simple. Good design takes something and then improves upon it.
Great design, in the meantime, asks, ‘Why do we do it this way in the first place?’
Good design is that it’s possible to do it continuously. But for web or graphic, or any other type of design to be considered significant and inspired, it will require you to take the time to ask the right questions occasionally.
So if you’re looking for excellent sources of design inspiration, don’t be afraid to close your laptop and do something else after you are done reading this article. Even as you spend your time on different tasks, your subconscious will continue to assess and solve the problems in your creative endeavours.
After all, haven’t you read enough articles telling you how to boost your creativity by now?
How many of those have made a difference?
You have probably heard about that one quote by Einstein:
“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”
The truth is, he never said that. But the sentiment is still correct. Trying something different is often the key to exceptional results.
So go ahead, try something different.
Last update on 2022-10-03 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API