Practical Tips for Taking Design Inspiration without Copying

Designers of all kinds rely on inspiration for their work in order to achieve their best results. Inspiration can come from just about anywhere, but for web designers who are online virtually all day it frequently comes from gallery sites, design blogs, or just websites that you come across in other ways. The amount of inspiration of this kind that is available can be a huge help when you are struggling with a project of your own, but one challenge that designers face is how to put that inspiration into practice while still creating something unique and of quality.

There are ways to take advantage of the inspirational work that is available from other designers and use it to create something of your own, and in this article we’ll look at the subject in detail.

Get Inspiration from Offline Sources in Addition to Online Sources

Web designers are not limited to getting their inspiration from other websites. In fact, offline sources of inspiration will provide more diversity and in many cases will lead to more originality in your web design. Online sources of inspiration are plentiful and easy to find, but offline inspiration can come from just about anything around you, including nature, magazines, books, photographs, fashion, and much more.

Because most other web designers are getting their inspiration almost exclusively from online sources, taking yours from a more diverse set of sources is likely to result in work that avoids simply following the latest web design trends. With offline sources you won’t be in danger of copying what is providing the inspiration.

In Where Does Inspiration Come From? Anthony Zinni writes,

For me inspiration comes from looking at the design of other mediums or formats. When I am working on a new website I tend to open up a copy of print or STEP and see what the latest articles are about, or review the pieces I have collected over the past couple of months. Usually by observing great design outside the medium I am focusing on I am able to apply design principles that are not like current trends and are still appealing. This also often helps take my mind off of the project, which is usually when I am able to find a great solution.

Use Nodes of Inspiration

Way back in 2004 Cameron Moll wrote an article called Nodes of Design Inspiration in which he talked about his process of taking inspiration for various elements within a design from different sources. He says,

In a design sense, I use the term ‘node’ to loosely define intersecting points in a layout. The logo inside the masthead. The masthead resting above two columns. The placement of phone and web address just beneath body copy in a magazine ad. And the like.

By combining the concept of design inspiration with that of design nodes, we discover something I call ‘nodes of inspiration’ or ‘node of inspiration’ for short (*snicker). Simply put, these are points of intersection in a layout in which a designer uses another source as reference for inspiration.

In the example that Cameron uses in this article he took inspiration from five different sites for specific elements in a design of his own. As a result, while each of the sources of inspiration was helpful, the end result was an original design rather than a copy. Most designers are in the habit of seeking inspiration from more than one source, but as Cameron points out, it can often happen unintentionally without even realizing it.

Ask Yourself Specifically What You Like About a Design

When browsing through a design gallery it’s easy to find sites using designs that you like. However, it’s often harder to be able to point out the specific aspects or elements of the design that you like. Without knowing what makes a design special it’s much more difficult to take away inspiration that can be used in your own work. The only way to use this design for inspiration in your own work is to basically copy it because you will not know what to take away from it.

If you’re willing and able to take a few minutes to really think about the design and how it impacts you as a visitor, you will have a solid understanding of what makes the design work. As a result, you will have specific reasons in mind why you like the site, and these are things that you will be able to use in sites that you design.

Pay Attention to the Design Details

As you are looking at the source of inspiration to determine exactly what makes the site work so well, you’ll want to pay attention to the details that set it apart. Small details in a design may not be the first thing that you notice, but they create a polished look that makes an impact.

Liam from Function has written an excellent article, How to Spot Quality, that is a must-read on the subject. In this article he points out the impact of design details and what makes a design work, with plenty of examples. He covers a variety of topics including spacing, pixel perfect detail, typography, organization of elements, restraint and subtlety, and color.

As you examine the details of a design, you will start to find things that you can actually put into practice in your own work. In many cases you can use these details even in work that is very different from the source of the inspiration.

In Don’t Copy a Design – Steal it, Dmitry Fadeyev writes,

When you look at an inspirational design you should be inspired. Take your time to examine its aesthetic and construction in detail — look over all the nuances and intricacies of its structure. See how the creator did this and that — extract the essence of what makes this work great.

To steal a design you must collect all the pieces of the puzzle and figure out how it all works as a whole — why did the artist use this color, why these lines, why this typeface? …. Once you’ve assimilated the principles and ideas employed by a designer in their great piece, you can use those ideas in your own work. You’re not going to copy them — you will instead use these tools only where they make sense, and only where they will work well — that’s because you understand exactly why they were employed in the first place.

Evaluate How the Design Style Works for the Purpose of the Site

Just because a site features an attractive design does not mean that it will be effective. And just because we may not particularly care for a design does not mean that it will fail. What works for one site in one industry may not be appropriate for another. In order for a design to be successful it must be a good fit for the target audience and it must work with the purposes of the site.

As you are looking at other sites as sources of inspiration for a particular project, take the time to evaluate how that design would work in the circumstances of your own project. Are the particular elements of the design that could be good to use in your work and other things that you could replace?

As you look at sources of design with this approach, you will tend to focus in on specifics that you can use, and rather than copying a design you will wind up benefiting from the elements that will have the biggest impact for your project.

Try to Find Ways to Improve the Design

As I have said earlier in this article, in order to really get the most use out of your sources of inspiration you will need to be able to determine what works and what does not. One of the best ways to get you thinking in a way that will allow you to take something useful away from the design is to critique it by trying to find some ways that you would improve it.

This will help you to really have a grasp of the design and it will be of more use to you in your own work. Additionally, you’re work will truly be inspired by it, rather than a copy of it.

Have a Lot of Inspiration at Your Disposal

We’ve talked about nodes of inspiration and the need to have multiple sources, so of course you will need to have plenty of inspiration available for situations where you need it. In a past article I wrote about keeping an inspiration notebook so that you always have things available when you are in need. Of course, there are also some great resources for cataloging you online inspiration, such as, Evernote, and Delicious.

Having resources to categorize your items of inspiration can make it easier to use nodes of inspiration. For example, maybe in your Delicious bookmarks you have tagged a bunch of websites with excellent navigation menus. Or maybe you have a tag for sites that have interesting footers. If this is the case, when you’re looking for some ideas for a particular element of the design you will have a place to turn where you can quickly get some help.

In Be Inspired, but Don’t Copy, Marko Prljic writes,

When you have found a design that you like, don’t stop there. Look further for more similar designs, in color, structure, content etc. Take the best of them all and start thinking about your new layout. When I say “thinking”, I mean try to visualize your new design with these elements that inspired you; don’t just try to recreate the same design. By the time you start drawing some mock-ups, you’ll have new ideas and will design something new and unique.

Attempt to Duplicate the Design for Practice

In order to be able to use your sources of inspiration in your own work you will first have to learn from it. Particularly for new designers, or those who are looking to improve their skills, attempting to duplicate a design can be a great learning experience. I’m not suggesting that you do this for a client project or for anything that will be displayed publicly, but for your own learning practices it can be a great way to improve your skills, and it will force you to pay attention to the details of the design.

You could attempt to duplicate a layout in Photoshop, or you could try to code the site. Whatever approach you take, focus on understanding the design and learning from it rather than simply trying to duplicate it so that you can apply this instead of just improving your technical skills.

What’s Your Advice?

If you have advice from your experience that you would like to share with other designers, please leave a comment.

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