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5 unique ways for designers to get inspired

Cathy Reisenwitz

by Cathy Reisenwitz on August 25, 2020

Today's post is a guest post by Rodney Laws, Editor at Ecommerce Platforms.

Just as a master author pores over the classics before constructing a unique style, the best designers in the world are always looking for design inspiration. To help you with this voyage of discovery, we’re going to take a look at five tactics for gaining design inspiration that you might not have considered.

1. Review your old design projects

You might think that you couldn’t glean much inspiration from examining your own work, but you’d be wrong. There are three big reasons for this. First, it’s hard to judge your creations with any degree of objectivity when you’re working on them (writers can’t even catch their own typos), so revisiting something you did long ago will help you see what you could have done better (and how much progress you’ve made). You’ll then be able to apply that insight to your current work, and possibly even attempt a version two of an old project. To return to the writing example, it isn’t uncommon for writers to draft stories, be dissatisfied with them, then return to them years later to get them right.

Secondly, going back over your past is a great way to rekindle old passions. Maybe there was an art style that you really enjoyed but simply forgot about, or a series of design projects that you started and meant to finish before life got in the way. Nostalgia can be a powerful motivator— pushing you to continue where you left off.

Thirdly, and most significantly, you’ll see things you attempted that you lacked the skill to properly execute — particularly early in your design career when you didn’t know enough to know what you couldn’t do. Taking a look at the decent ideas you tried (but failed) to execute could give you a clear path to pursue.

2. Browse creative marketplaces

Practical design work is two things: creative enough to stand out, and good enough to make money. So while you can learn much from design forums or sites like Reddit, an excellent way to find those two qualities in comparable measure is to spend some time on creative online marketplaces (traditional marketplaces would be advisable outside of a pandemic).

Etsy is currently the biggest example of such a marketplace, and by quite some margin. In many ways it’s become synonymous with ecommerce arts and crafts: whatever DIY products they have to sell, merchants invariably gravitate towards it for the exposure. You can search for a style, era, or material that interests you — or just click around until something catches your eye.

In the marketing world, there’s a popular tactic called the skyscraper method which involves winning search rankings by mimicking and iterating upon a standout piece of content. If you find a hit Etsy product that you think you could do better, why not give it a shot? You don’t even need to sell it, though you can if you feel so inclined. It’s really about pushing yourself to excel.

3. Switch up your production process

Designers can easily get stuck in ruts, particularly now that we’re working from home. The creative mind needs practical variety. An underrated way to strike a spark in your cognition is to simply change the way you approach your design work. You needn’t do anything else differently: just modify the conditions.

You could, for instance, start working at different times of the day (or night). Maybe you’ve been adhering strictly to a 9am start for as long as you can remember, and continue to work that way because routine is good. Routine is only good while it gets results. Even if you have to meet company hours, there’s surely some flexibility there if you have top-notch time management — and if you don’t need to meet company hours (perhaps you’re self-employed), then why not try starting work in the afternoon? Or even just taking much longer lunch breaks?

Alternatively, you could switch up your design tools and process. If you do all your design work in Photoshop, try a different tool. Something more like Illustrator that deals with vector graphics could give you a fresh perspective. Get a new chair, reposition your monitor, work in a different area. Take your laptop outside. Just one minor shift in your pattern can make a big difference.

4. Try to make something terrible

Sure, this might sound like a strange idea, but hear me out. Most of your design work will be inherently limited in various ways. You’ll use strong lines, consistent shading, clear contrasts, and legible fonts. These are useful limitations, but they’re limitations regardless — and they can inhibit creativity as well as enjoyment. If you set out to create something awful, you can forget about holding yourself back and seek to include all the elements you hate the most.

In all probability, you’ll do a mediocre job of producing terrible work and end up with a result that’s merely bad, but that’s alright. The process will serve to unclog your mind somewhat, and remind you of why all the rules you intentionally disregarded are so worthwhile. I mentioned contrasts, and it has a broader relevance here: bad design proves the value of good design.

There’s another possibility that bears considering, of course, which is that the final product will actually be quite good. Maybe some — or even all — of the design rules you’ve been following have actually been holding you back from achieving a unique style. Design is both a science and an art, after all, and you oughtn’t be entirely strict about it.

5. Find some time for meditation

When you think about inspiration, you probably envision activity and vitality. Doing different things. Enjoying varied sensory experiences. Clearing out the old and taking in the new. And for the most part, that’s the right way to approach inspiration. But not always.

Sometimes the key is to do less. Less thinking and moving from thing-to-thing. Slowing down to meditate may help you unlock some inspiration. If you’re finding it hard to come up with great design work in a global pandemic, that’s pretty understandable. And while meditation isn’t a cure-all, it can help you decrease your stress. And remember that this isn’t all on you. (Check out: 3 ways for companies to stop victim-blaming employees.)

Set out some time to clear your head and remind yourself of why you do what you do, then return to your design work: it might lead to a creative resurgence.

Going forward

At the end of the day, creativity comes from a variety of places. Obviously you want to be sure you’re talking to users. And sometimes the key is just making something and seeing how people respond to it.

Cathy Reisenwitz

Cathy Reisenwitz

Cathy Reisenwitz is Head of Content at Clockwise where she oversees the Clockwise Blog and The Minutes Newsletter. She has covered business software for six years and has been published in Newsweek, Forbes, the Daily Beast, VICE Motherboard, Reason magazine, Talking Points Memo and other publications.

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