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Creating Inspired Design: Part 6: Across the Universe

Last updated Oct 17, 2003.

By Andy Clarke

Words are flying out like
endless rain into a paper cup
They slither while they pass
They slip away across the universe
Pools of sorrow waves of joy
are drifting thorough my open mind
Possessing and caressing me

Across The Universe, Lennon-McCartney, 1969

Sometime during 1967, the phrase "words are flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup" came into John Lennon's mind. He scribbled down the words and later began to write the remaining lyrics for what would become one of The Beatles' most iconic songs, Across The Universe.

With the words committed to paper, Lennon went to bed and forgot about them. The following morning, Lennon found the lyrics that he had written and sat down at his piano to experiment with chords to complement the words, chords that were themselves inspired in part by his interest at the time in transcendental meditation.

I began this series of Creating Inspired Design articles with a reference to Lennon and McCartney's I Am The Walrus. The Beatles' lyrics have long been a source of inspiration to me, just as the music and culture of the East were inspirational to them. Throughout history, artists, craftsmen, and musicians have found inspiration from the art and customs of other cultures. I encourage Web designers to do the same. The world, after all, is a cultural melting pot of ideas and experiences—everywhere you travel, everywhere you look, and everything you see, hear, and touch can generate new ideas.

Throughout this series of articles, I've encouraged you to seek inspiration for your web designs away from the web itself by looking to print and other forms of visual design and communication. This is a subject that's very close to my heart. Having spent almost 10 years designing for the web and looking at the work of many web designers from many nations, I've come to believe that seeking inspiration outside of the web is vital to making the web a more visually rich and interesting place to be.

Although it seems common practice, when designers look mainly at the web for their inspiration for layout, navigation, and other ideas for screen-based interfaces, the ideas circulating become diluted. After all, the more times that you photocopy a photocopy, the more faded it will become. I believe that the same must be true for web design.

Of course, not everyone shares that view. Those in favor of establishing design patterns may think that it's good for designers worldwide to adopt common design conventions, especially since they're creating a medium with global reach. Others may feel that what they believe to be an evolving convergence of ideas is the natural conclusion to a worldwide creative process.

But I take the opposite view. I believe that, just as in nature, the web must continue to offer a wide range of visual design diversity in order to survive as a creative, artistic medium. Diversity is essential to the survival of a well-designed web and inspiration of all kinds, from all sources, plays a large part in that survival.

Continuing To Be Inspired

How does a designer begin to—and continue to be—inspired to create innovative work? I will confess that as an independent designer running my own studio, the emotional and psychological challenges of designing at your best, month after month, can sometimes be draining.

If, like me, you work in your own studio you will no doubt understand the additional pressures of business or financial concerns that can also take your mind away from design. If you're working in a larger organization, or perhaps as part of a team, continuing to be inspired, while often balancing your own needs with those of your team, can also be challenging.

Alan Fletcher, author of The Art Of Looking Sideways, may have said it best, when he said, "Design is not a thing you do. It's a way of life."

Figure 1

Figure 1. The Art of Looking Sideways by Alan Fletcher (photo: Jason Santa Maria; http://www.jasonsantamaria.com)

I'm sure that Fletcher's words will be echoed by thousands of designers from many different disciplines and from far-flung corners of the design world. From my own experience, design is not so much as my job, as an all-consuming passion. Keeping inspired means fuelling my inner creative, and when my inspiration tank runs into reserve, it needs regular top-ups wherever and whenever I can find them.

So, what are a few practical things that designers can do to continue to be inspired? Although every designer is different, many of the ways we work are similar.

Sketchbooks

Sketchbooks are fundamental tools of the trade for the visual designer. You can use them to store away ideas or to develop those ideas in a place that allows you to play and experiment without feeling self-conscious.

You can use your sketchbooks to store ideas for innovative page layouts, play with type and letterforms, or even to idly doodle whilst traveling on a train or talking on the telephone. Some designers keep one or more sketchbooks at any one time, one for sketching from life and others for ideas that are perhaps more directly related to their work.

Figure 2

Figure 2. Jason Santa Maria's sketchbook (photo courtesy of Jason Santa Maria; http://www.jasonsantamaria.com)

Collecting

For many designers, including the renowned British designer Jon Hicks (http://www.hicksdesign.co.uk), a creative fuel tank is often kept topped up by collecting, as I have encouraged you to do throughout this series.

More than simply collecting materials from other media that you can repurpose, being an avid collector of inspiration most often involves you collecting the raw materials or ingredients that may one day find themselves as part of your designs. Hicks himself has described these ingredients as designer fuel.

Many of my art school friends kept scrapbooks that were chock-full of inspiration that they collected. Some of their collections were so inspiring that they could have become art in themselves. It was only later in my own design career that I realized how important these collections could become to my work.

Keeping a paper rather than an electronic scrapbook can be useful, not only for collecting, but also for the often accidental and random juxtaposition of elements that can sometimes occur within their pages.

Figure 3

Figure 3. Designer Jon Hicks iPhoto collection (courtesy of Jon Hicks; http://www.hicksdesign.co.uk)

If paper, tape, or glue sounds too messy for you, there are less sticky alternatives. For example, Jon Hicks chooses to store inspiring type styles, color combinations, and scans of other found objects in folders that he creates within Apple's iPhoto application for Mac OS X. You could easily do the same in the imaging and photo application of your choice.

Magazines

Creative fuel is all around and every designer has his or her own favorite place to find it. Perhaps you prefer the racks of magazines in the newsstand at the end of the street, filled with a seemingly endless variety of printed inspiration?

Magazines can be an invaluable source of ideas for unusual column layouts and other types of interface elements for the web. They can suggest to you new ways to display products in an online store or alternative types of navigation. Whatever you find yourself flicking through, from Motorcycle News to Kerrang!, you will almost always find something that can form the beginnings of an idea.

Figure 4

Figure 4. Typography inspiration from my own scrapbook. (photo courtesy of Transcending CSS: The Fine Art of Web Design. New Riders 2006; http://www.transcendingcss.com)

Once the magazine collecting bug has bitten you, tearing pages out of the magazines left in doctor's and dentist's waiting rooms can become quite a habit, and raise a few eyebrows among your fellow patients.

Bookstores

In the dusty corners of secondhand bookstores, many a forgotten gem of cover design can be uncovered and serve as inspiration for distinctive typography. Even today where visual designers are used to delivering screen-based designs, the smell of a secondhand bookstore, the feel of a book, and the experience of looking at it can suggest design ideas that feel more traditional and more real.

Figure 5

Figure 5. Book covers can be a source of inspiration that is out of this world (photo courtesy of Jason Santa Maria (http://www.jasonsantamaria.com)

For many visual designers, type and typography are key components in delivering and communicating a message through design. Collecting "found" typography is not only creatively stimulating; it can also become highly addictive. Although the art of typography is far more than simply choosing attractive typefaces, unusual typographic styles found in unusual places can not only add the final touches to a design, but can inspire the creative direction of a design.

As both good and bad typographic design of all shapes and sizes is all around us, you won't need to walk far to find a style that stimulates your imagination. If you prefer to stay indoors (at least during daylight hours), many type foundries publish catalogues of typefaces that are free of charge to their customers. Often a purchase of only a few pounds will qualify you to receive a rich source of modern type style inspiration every few months.

Packaging

Perhaps my own favorite source of inspiration over recent months has been three-dimensional rather than two-dimensional. A quick look around my breakfast table reveals my latest source of inspiration: the packaging on my cereal box.

Figure 6

Figure 6. My collection of Dorset Cereals packaging; a source of nutritious color and typography inspiration.

Creating Inspired Web Design Is A Fine Art

I hope you've enjoyed reading this short series of articles on Creating Inspired Design as much as I've enjoyed writing them. It's easy to think that visual design for the web is about creating attractive visuals, but design can be much more than that. Good design evokes feelings and emotions in people who visit a web site or use a web application. When you create the right mood, your visitors are far more likely to want to interact with your site and with your company.

As the web has evolved, visual designers have played a key role in capturing the public's imagination by delivering inspired design. I do not believe that we have yet reached the pinnacle of what we can achieve with creative, visual design on the web.

I look forward to seeing the inspired design that you create next.