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.

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, your 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. 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, in your Delicious bookmarks, tag 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.

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.

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.

Keep an Inspiration Notebook

Become Less Reliant on Online Source of Inspiration
If you find yourself drawing inspiration only from other websites, it’s likely that you could improve your creativity and your design by branching out and drawing from other sources of inspiration. If you follow this blog you know that I like and appreciate inspiration from other websites, but when we stop looking outside of the online world for inspiration we put ourselves at risk of simply following trends in web design without a real purpose.

Encourages You to Pay Attention to a Wide Variety of Design Disciplines
Once you’ve started your inspiration notebook and you’re regularly adding to it, you’ll find yourself paying closer attention to things all around you that could provide excellent design inspiration. Rather than just focusing on inspiration from other websites, it will help to open you up to a wider variety of sources.

Will Likely Lead to More Originality in Your Design
As I already mentioned, getting inspiration from more places will help to promote greater originality in web design. Web design is like anything else, it has trends that come and go frequently. If other websites are your only source of inspiration you’ll probably find yourself following popular trends rather than branching out and implementing something more original. With an inspiration notebook, you’ll have all kinds of sources at your disposal that can help you to come up with some creative and original ideas.

It Will Always be Available When You Need it
After you’ve started to compile some great sources of design inspiration in your notebook, you can turn to it at any time when you need it. Most designers have a great appreciation for offline inspiration, but without having a way to keep track of the things you come across it can take a while to find inspiration from these sources. With a notebook, all you’ll have to do is pull it out and start flipping through it without any real time requirement.

How to Keep an Inspiration Notebook

Get a Binder or Folder
The obvious first step is to have someplace to keep the various items of inspiration that you find. It doesn’t really matter what you use, as long as it works well for you. It could be a 3-ring binder or a loose-leaf notebook, or anything else that allows you to store things that you find and easily browse through them later.

Categorize It
Most likely, as you add items over a period of time it will get more difficult to find what you’re looking for. In this case, it’s a good idea to categorize the contents by using tabs or something else to separate the various sections. You may want to categorize it according to the type of item, such as pages from a magazine, brochures, business cards, etc. Alternatively, you could categorize it according to the design style of the type of inspiration that it provides, such as typographic or color schemes.

Add to it Consistently
In order for the inspiration notebook to be of the most use, you’ll need to consistently add items to it so that you’ll always be able to find great sources of inspiration when you need them. Get in the habit of looking at items around you in your daily life that and add them to the notebook if you find them inspiring in some way. You may also want to add post-it notes or something to make notes to yourself about aspects of the design or elements that you think may be useful to you in the future.

Make a Habit of Turning to Your Inspiration Notebook
If the inspiration notebook is going to be useful to you long-term, you need to not only add new items to it, but you must also rely on it as a source of inspiration on a regular basis. When you’re looking for inspiration online, make an effort to also spend a few minutes browsing through your notebook. Once you have developed the habits of actively watching for items to add from your daily life as well as turning to it for inspiration, the notebook will be very valuable to you as a designer.

What to Include in Your Inspiration Notebook

The point of keeping an inspiration notebook is to add various sources to your regular inspiration in addition to just online sources, however, there are some limitations. Obviously, you’re limited to whatever items you can fit inside a notebook or folder. Many designers enjoy drawing inspiration from nature and the outdoors. While you can’t keep the outdoors in a notebook, you can keep photos of inspirational landscapes and scenes from nature. So while there are limitations, there are also plenty of opportunities to use a notebook for this purpose.

As you go about your daily life, you see design and creativity all around you. Here are some things that you can easily keep in an inspiration notebook for a later time.

  • Magazine covers
  • Magazine pages and layouts
  • Newspapers
  • Junk mail
  • Brochures and pamphlets
  • Fliers
  • Advertisements
  • Business cards
  • Letterhead and stationary
  • Photographs
  • Postcards
  • Album covers
  • Stickers
  • Anything else you can find

34 Websites (And More) for Your Design Inspiration

For excellent examples to inspire you, here are some galleries we have put together to showcase work from various designers. The text links will lead you to the source, and by clicking on the images you will be led to the pages on the galleries.

Folio Focus:

Folio Focus currently includes more than 300 portfolio sites on display from various creative professionals. There are around 20 new sites added each week. To stay up-to-date with Folio Focus you can subscribe by RSS, email, or follow on Twitter.

Pixel Kings


Eye Candy


Dean Hayden




Rocco Studio


Cart Frenzy:

CartFrenzy has more than 300 e-commerce websites in the archives. There are about 20 – 25 new sites added each week. To stay up-to-date with CartFrenzy you can subscribe by RSS, email, or follow on Twitter.



The Sak




Maui Divers Jewelry








Minimal Exhibit:

Minimal Exhibit currently has more than 230 websites on display. Each week there are 10 – 20 new sites added to the archives. To stay up-to-date with Minimal Exhibit you can subscribe by RSS, email, or follow on Twitter.



Brian Hoff


Ribbons of Red




Greg White






Blog Design Heroes:

Blog Design Heroes is currently showcasing over 180 blogs. There are 10 – 15 new blogs added to the gallery each week. To stay up-to-date you can subscribe by RSS, email, or follow on Twitter.

The Swish Life




Development Seed Blog


One Blog


The Photo Argus


The Greg Brady Project



TypeInspire showcases inspirational and exemplary uses of typography in design. It includes 350 items and about 25 new items are added each week. To stay up-to-date with TypeInspire you can subscribe by RSS, email, or follow on Twitter.

Jimi Hendrix

Jimi Hendrix

These Colors Run

These Colors Run

dA Wallpaper

dA Wallpaper

Sometimes I Get Bored

Sometimes I Get Bored

Helvetica Story Poster

Helvetica Story Poster

Walking the Moon

Walking the Moon



Life is Like Riding a Bicycle

Life is Like Riding a Bicycle



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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