The Value of Inspiration
To cutoff anyone already forming an argument about the evils of design inspiration, here’s my preemptive rebuttal. It is without a doubt the case that galleries of inspiration serve as buffets for hack designers who simply ripoff the work of others. Further, overuse of inspiration can stifle your own creativity. However, this is a misuse of the system and does not merit eliminating inspiration altogether.
Examining good design is like ingesting nutritional content for your brain. Similar to browsing a dictionary to better your vocabulary, viewing excellent work done by others increases the breadth of your creativity. The key is to be inspired towards originality, not away from it.
When you see a horizontally scrolling website, don’t try to figure out how you can mimic it, instead consider how you can create a completely different take on the horizontal scroll. When you see a logo that uses negative space to create an arrow, don’t try to do the same thing slightly different so as not to be accused of anything, instead be inspired to think about negative space in new ways.
You simply can’t construct a logical argument against using design inspiration. Almost everything you create is somehow affected by things that you’ve seen in the past that impacted you in a certain way. You see a website that uses rounded corners, forget all about it, and six months later you’re using rounded corners on your own site. It goes the other way too. Sometimes you see ten sites in a single week that use reflections so you consciously make a decision to avoid them.
The point is, when used properly, inspiration will make you a better designer in the same way that reading great novels will make you a better writer, listening to great music will make you a better song writer and visiting the Louvre will make you a better artist. So why not be methodical about it?
Now that my rant about inspiration is out of the way, let’s look at a few tools that I think are top-notch ways to collect inspirational design.
LittleSnapper is hands down my favorite way to collect, store and organize digital inspiration. This amazing mac application takes screenshots way beyond the default OS X functionality.
LittleSnapper allows you to create global shortcuts for screenshots just like the core OS X tool but instead of popping up on your desktop or clipboard, they are imported and stored in a library. Here you can title your snaps, organize them into folders and smart folders and tag them. Think of it as iPhoto for screenshots (you can also use iPhoto to store inspiration by the way).
You can easily snap a specific window, a certain area of the screen or the entire screen. One of the killer features is that you can snap an entire web page straight from Safari. Not just the portion visible on the screen mind you, the whole thing. You can also use the integrated browser to select certain images on a web page and LS will grab them automatically.
Little Snapper supports exporting snaps to a web service called Ember, which we’ll discuss next.
The LittleSnapper guys have also created Ember, a free browser-based tool for sharing images (LittleSnapper not required). It’s basically a social network for designers to collect and share inspiration (like Dribbble but not as exclusive).
You can upload up to 30 images per month (unlimited for $24/yr). You can follow other users as well as favorite, tag and categorize images. Ember contains over 200,000 images to browse so it’s an excellent place to get lost for an hour in great design examples.
ZooTool is a free social bookmarking tool cool enough to make me abandon Delicious in a heartbeat (after I easily imported all my Delicious content of course).
The reason it’s so much better is that rather than keeping a simple list of bookmarks like Delicious, ZooTool takes a snapshot of the page you’re bookmarking for a visual reference. You can either grab an entire web page or just specific parts such as an image or movie.
Your bookmarks are presented in an beautiful interface that would be almost indistinguishable from that of LittleSnapper if not for some added wood texture.
As with Ember, ZooTool allows you to organize and tag your snaps as well as follow other users and favorite their images. ZooTool’s convenient bookmarklet makes it about the best tool around for quickly saving bits of inspiration while browsing the web.
If you don’t know what Evernote is, you’ve surely been living alone in the woods with no Internet access. Evernote is the single best free way to capture random digital clutter. This includes everything from passwords to receipts.
Odds are, you haven’t just given up being a hermit and have either heard of Evernote or are among the 3 million people that already use it. However, you may not have ever considered using it to store digital inspiration. If you have Evernote installed, you can simply right-click on any image you see online and add it to Evernote. It’s that easy! You can also add entire web pages this way but the CSS tends to get screwed up in the process (“add page as PDF” is a little more reliable).
Once it’s in Evernote, you can tag and organize to your heart’s content and view all your inspiration as a page of thumbnails. You can also sync to both an online account with a web interface and to any other device where you have Evernote installed: other computers, iPhones, iPads, etc.
Snipi is a free web service that’s a lot like ZooTool. You use a bookmarklet or Firefox plugin to collect elements as you’re browsing the web. You can grab images, videos or products and organize them in your account. You can also create “streams” of content and share them with others.
I found it to be a little clunky, but definitely worth checking out if you don’t like ZooTool for some reason.
Stixi is an awesome web app that I stumbled upon while researching this article. With Stixi you can create digital boards of positionable content (like a bulletin board of sticky notes). You can upload images and documents, add todos, or write notes.
This would be an excellent tool for creating and maintaining moodboards for specific projects or simply organizing visual inspiration in a highly interactive manner.
What do You Use?
Now that you’ve seen my all-star list of inspiration collection and organization tools, use the comments below to share your favorites.
Let us know if it’s a Mac, PC or web app and what killer feature made you choose it over other options available