Inspiration or Intellectual Thievery?
The concept of using “inspiration” in design is hotly debated. Many designers get as much inspiration as they can and build personal collections of great design examples (like the one we have here) while others berate such galleries as a breeding ground for hack designers seeking to ripoff the work of others.
My argument is a very personal one: seeing the work of others makes me a better designer. Much in the same way that hearing other guitar players makes me a better guitarist, reading books makes me a better writer and seeing amazing photographs makes me a better photographer. We all draw inspiration from the things around us whether we admit it or not. The real debate lies in how you use that inspiration.
Getting Out of a Rut
We’ve all been there. Having a job that forces you to dish out creativity non-stop inevitably leads to a dry well. These are the moments when I find myself most in need of inspiration. These times of desperation for good ideas are also the moments where you’re most likely to be tempted to just find someone else’s design, slap a fresh coat of paint on it and call it a day.
Perhaps a much better approach though is to learn to look at the work of others in a deconstructionist manner. Take it apart conceptually and look for pieces that provide you with fresh ideas.
Let’s take a look at how you can do this by examining something that isn’t remotely related to the final product we want to come up with: A Norman Rockwell painting.
The image below is where we will draw our design inspiration. As you can see, though it’s a beautiful piece, it is a very unlikely candidate on which to base any sort of modern commercial design (though Rockwell was practically a graphic designer in his day).
To make this exercise even more ridiculous, we’re going to use the work of this great American painter as inspiration for developing a brand look and feel for a trendy sushi bar.
First of all, take a look at your inspiration and jot down a few quick notes about what catches your attention. What do you like most about the piece?
In Rockwell’s “Sunset,” I like that there is lots of whitespace. It makes for a clean composition with plenty of room to breathe. I also love the sun image, it really provides the main focal point and draws your attention to the people. Other things that I like are the aging bench, the girl’s shoes and the subtle inclusion of daisies, suggesting an earlier moment.
We don’t have to turn all of these observations into aspects of our design, we’re merely building a pool from which to work.
We’ll start with the sun. I’m going to take this interpretation in a very literal way. In the scheme of the greater design you’ll see that it is in fact acceptable to grab a few things almost directly.
Notice that I’ve grabbed the color in addition to the shape. A large portion of our inspiration from this piece will be from color. I really like the saturated feel of the colors and how they pop on the white background.
With a little bit of manipulation, this can easily become a more interesting graphical element. In Photoshop, go to Filter>Pixelate>Fragment. This is a rarely used filter that can actually yield some pretty interesting results. After this, throw some thin typography in there and we have a minimal and stylish logo concept to build from.
The bench in the Norman Rockwell scene is this old rickety thing that’s bowing in the middle. You could take this a number of ways. You could bring some wood texture into your design, reuse the shape, grab the color, etc.
For our purposes, let’s go the abstract route and use the basic shape of the bench. When we take that “v” shape and sample a nice mid-tone from the bench color, we get the design below.
Though I like where this is going, I wanted to stick to a white background for the design. For this reason, I’m going to invert the shape we just created. Remember to not get caught up on using the inspiration, as soon as the ideas start to flow, the original design has served its purpose and can now take a backseat to your own creativity.
This shape makes a great header element that adds some visual interest to the page while leaving us with a nice blank canvas below to work from.
Now that we have an attractive header and logo in place, we can throw in some sample content. Since we’re just ideating on a possible visual identity, we don’t need to get too caught up on what else goes into the design, we’re basically just exploring more opportunities.
We’ll finish off this page by grabbing some color from the girl’s shirt and using it for a headline. We’ll also throw in some other placeholder elements just to give us a feel for an overall design.
Fleshing Out The Concept
Now that we have a really nice looking design started, we can thank Mr. Rockwell for his time and send him on his way. By now your creativity should be in full gear, revived from its previously idle state. To complement our first page, we can make another with inverted colors. As we experiment with different variations, we begin to open up a lot of possibilities for the brand and can really begin to create a solid platform (photo credit).
These two basic design ideas can not only be used separately, but fuzed together into a really unique end product.
Remember that this process may not come as smoothly as it seems above. I ran through lots of different interpretations of Rockwell’s work before settling on the designs above. Experimentation is the key. Let the ideas flow unhindered until you fall on something that you start to like, then run with it.
Take a look at the finished designs that we came up with, then look back at the sunset painting. Can anyone honestly say that we ripped off the hard work of good old Norman? I think not.
Instead, we used his art as “inspiration” in a true sense of the word: as a jumping off point. This is a great habit to get into for when you’re stuck in a project and need some fresh ideas. It’s a bit trickier to look at web design in this manner because it’s already so close to what you want to produce, but the same principles really do apply. Find some sites that you really like in our gallery and make a brief list of the things you like about them. Then use the list as your starting place for sketching out ideas for your own projects.
That concludes this design discussion. As always, thanks for reading! If you enjoyed the article, do us a favor and send out a tweet, digg, stumble or whatever you’re into.