Design Inspiration

A part of my kind of design and inspiration ethos is that I carry around a leather notebook and I sketch in it, doodle in it, write notes in it, and I put pictures in it.
John Varvatos

I’m sure every designer has their own way of beginning a design. Some go straight to the computer and open a new page and start creating elements or initial layouts – their process being to run through ideas until a few start to gel, and then develop them. I was taught to spend time with a pen and paper and let the ideas flow there, but gradually my process has evolved. Nevertheless, over time those notebooks become a repository of sketches, phrases, concepts that still can be reviewed or used as the basis of a new design.

I’d like to tell you I am as organized as John Varvatos, with just one location for ideas, but my collecting process is different. I am constantly on the look out for images that speak to me, and have files of stock photos, public domain, and personal photos I can draw on when I am seeking to create a mood or a visual statement. This habit is so bad I have an external hard drive with folders of photos on it.

Another element of design for me is typography, so in much the same way as I collect photos for future use, I also collect fonts. Not the ordinary, everyday fonts we all use, but obscure ones, ones with personality that can’t be used very often, but in certain projects, they make just the right statement. (I also have an app for identifying fonts that catch my eye. Its that bad.)

Instead of a leather notebook, I always have a little plain notebook in my purse for scribbling down thoughts, but frequently use the Notes app on my phone, so my notes are accessible from my iPhone, iPad and laptop. This is so convenient it amazes me I didn’t think of it sooner…

Overhead walkway Covent GardenI also always have my phone with me, so if I see a design detail that intrigues me I will capture it. These images then get added to folders of ideas that I can refer to for future inspiration. For example, while in London I noticed an amazing overhead walkway near Covent Garden tube station that I suddenly looked up and noticed. I quickly took a photo, and while I am never going to design an overhead walkway (I can barely persuade myself to walk across one) the beauty of its DNA-like design remains a starting point for inspiration for more ethereal concepts.

Despite my dependence on technology I do have a number of sketchbooks I will reach for when I am thinking through a project. As someone with limited sketching skills what I add to these books are outlines – wire frames –  for web page layouts, concepts for a logo, ways of looking at an image to best convey a metaphor. I doubt if anyone else would be motivated by my ‘sketches’ by they often provide a direction that I can take and run with on the computer.

Recently I have been posting quotes with images as part of my effort to create something to post every day. I have had a wonderful time finding images that convey a concept greater than the items that were captured. It makes me think more broadly about the concept and find myself rejecting lots of perfectly good images while searching for something that conveys a bit more. I was looking for an image to illustrate Honore de Balzac’s saying, “If we could but paint with the hand what we see with the eye.” and finding it hard not to be too literal. I suddenly came across an image of an eye, that reflected the image of the photographer and knew that that was the image to use. The photographer “painted” what he saw with his eye, and we see him at the moment he did so. To my mind that image says so much more than a picture of a hand holding a paintbrush.

While there remains a romantic notion that all design begins with the hands, sadly I find that this isn’t the case as often as I would like. Maybe it is time to go back to collecting ideas by hand? Maybe not.