Finding Inspiration in Uncommon Sources: 12 Places to Look

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Inspiration can be a fickle thing. Most designers, when lacking ideas, turn to design galleries to find ideas. But there are a few problems with that approach. The most obvious is that when taking inspiration from similar mediums, there’s a fine line between “inspired by” and “copied”. To some extent, looking at established website designs can also be somewhat limiting, especially if you’re looking for a fresh solution to a problem.

There are so many things designers could be turning to for inspiration outside of design galleries. We’ve featured a dozen of those places below, along with where you can find inspiration for each of them. Share any other inspirational sources you might have in the comments.

Fashion

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The world of fashion has a long and varied artistic history. Trends change on a seasonal basis and often reflect the overall sentiment of culture at any given time. For example, in times of war or turmoil, feminine designs tend to become more popular to counterbalance all the perceived negativity. When there’s international financial trouble, designs tend to be less over-the-top and many designers focus on more realistic designs. By contrast, in economic boom times, designs tend to be very avant-garde and are more art pieces than functional clothing.

Taking inspiration from both modern and historical fashion can be a great way to infuse something new and fresh in your website designs. A few ideas on how to adapt fashion designs to your next project:

  • Look at the overall scale of an outfit and mimic it.
  • Color schemes are one of the easiest areas to adapt.
  • Look at the lines of a garment and emulate them in your designs.
  • Fabric textures and patterns are another easy-to-mimic area.

Where to Find Inspiration

Magazines: Take a look at the magazine rack of your local bookstore, grocery store, or drugstore for a wealth of fashion magazine choices. Some of the more popular ones (in the U.S., anyway) are Bazaar, Vogue, Glamour, and Nylon.

Style.com: Style.com2 is the online home of Vogue magazine and has up-to-the-minute coverage of designers, parties, and anything else going on in the world of fashion.

Style Blogs: There are a ton of style blogs out there. A few excellent ones to check out include The Cut3 (New York Magazine’s fashion blog), The Sartorialist4, and fashiontoast5. For even more, check out Signature9’s list of the 99 Most Influential Style Blogs6.

The Street: Check out fashion in the city or town in which you live. There are likely plenty of fashion-forward residents in or around your home town.

Architecture and Interior Design

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The world of architecture and interior design holds a huge variety of potential sources of inspiration, and there’s likely an aesthetic style out there for every taste and every project. From vernacular architecture to modern minimalism to art deco and everything in between, there’s almost certainly an architectural style out there that can be adapted to your project.

The number of architectural styles is really astounding, but here are some of the more prominent and interesting recent ones to get you started:

  • Art Nouveau8: A popular style around the turn of the 20th century (roughly 1890 to 1905) that fell out of style as the modernist movement took hold. The style is defined by violent curves (often called “whiplash” motifs), and dynamic, undulating, flowing lines. It was one of the inspirations for the psychedelic art movement of the 1960s. A great example of Art Nouveau architecture is the Museum of Applied Arts in Budapest.
  • American Craftsman9: Also known as American Arts & Crafts, it was popular in the late 19th century through the beginning of the 20th century, and still enjoys revivals to the current day. It emphasized locally crafted wood, glass, and metal work, and combined simplicity with elegance. Great examples can be in numerous Craftsman-style bungalows across the United States.
  • Prairie School10: Prairie School designs, which were popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, generally include a lot of horizontal lines, a desire to blend with the surrounding landscape, and discipline in the use of ornamentation. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Oak Park, Illinois home is a great example, as is the Woodbury County Courthouse in Iowa.
  • Art Deco11: A popular design movement between 1925 through the 1940s. It was seen as glamorous, elegant, modern and functional at the time. The City Hall of Buffalo New York and the spire of the Chrysler Building in New York City are both prime examples.
  • International Style12: A major style in the 1920s and 1930s, at the beginning of the modernist movement. A strict set of design rules is one of the key components of international style. Villa Savoye by Le Corbusier and The Glass Palace (in Heerlen, The Netherlands) are both great examples.
  • Mid-Century Modern13: A design style developed between roughly 1933 and 1965, and is a further development of both Frank Lloyd Wright’s principles and Bauhaus architecture. More organic and less formal than international style. Prominent proponents included Joseph Eichler and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. The Transamerica Pyramid in San Francisco and the Concourse building in Singapore are both good examples.
  • Postmodern14: An international style movement that started in the 1970s (with roots as far back as the 1950s). It’s not as formal as international style and has more ornamentation. The Bank of America Center in Houston, TX is a good example of postmodern architecture.

Where to Find Inspiration

There are a wealth of places to find inspiration from architecture and interior design, both online and off.

The Real World: There are likely a number of architectural gems not too far from where you currently live or work. Look up at the buildings that surround you on a daily basis and take in their forms, shapes, details, and other defining characteristics.

Magazines: Magazines like Architectural Digest, House Beautiful, Veranda, and a number of others can be picked up on almost any newsstand in the U.S. Other countries are likely to have either international versions of these or their own variations.

Design Blogs: There are tons of design blogs that cover architecture, including Inhabitat15 (which focuses on green design), A Daily Dose of Architecture16, and Eye Candy17.

Architecture Books: Most major bookstores have tons of architecture books (usually coffee table books) in their bargain section. You can often get excellent volumes with tons of photos for less than $20.

Photography

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There are billions of photos online you can peruse whenever you need a bit of inspiration. Look at composition, color, and balance within an image to get ideas. Also keep in mind what the story behind the image is, and think about how something similar could be applied to your design project.

Where to Find Inspiration

There are thousands of photo sites online. But that’s not the only place you can find photographic inspiration.

Flickr: Flickr19 has billions of photos. Some are fantastic, and some are far from it. Use groups and pools, as well as galleries and their explore feature to find the best images.

DeviantArt: DeviantArt20 has a fantastic photography section to browse. You’re likely to find a higher proportion of “artsy” images here than on Flickr, which may or may not be a good thing, depending on your particular project.

Coffee Table Books: Major bookstores tend to have tons of large-format, “coffee table” books in their discount section. These are often full of images of all kinds, and can be picked up for next to nothing. Used bookstores are another good source of this kind of book.

Flea Markets: Check vendors at flea markets for unique, vintage photographs.

Packaging Design

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Packaging design is far enough removed from web design that it’s often possible to find inspiring pieces you can easily adapt without copying. The change in format can lead to surprising adaptations that extend far beyond the original inspiration. The best part about packaging design is that it’s so accessible. Packaging surrounds us, making it easy to find examples in the real world.

Where to Find Inspiration

You can find inspiring packaging all over the place, from your own kitchen to the grocery store down the street.

Stores: This is the most obvious place to go for packaging design examples. Every store you go into will have some kind of packaging, from boxes and bags to hang tags and labels.

TheDieline: TheDieline22 is one of the best package design blogs out there. Their archives are inspiring and they’re updated daily.

Packaged Group on Flickr: The Packaged23 group on Flickr and their pool has more than 4,000 product packaging images for you to peruse.

Board Games

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There are hundreds of board games out there. And the thing about a lot of them is that they have fantastic color schemes and graphic elements. Sometimes the layouts of the games themselves can be used as a source of inspiration.

Where to Find Inspiration

Board games are sometimes a bit harder to come by, especially if you’re not into them for entertainment purposes. But here are a couple of places to check out if you’d like to try them for inspiration:

Flickr Pools: There are a number of Flickr pools and groups dedicated to games, but two of the better ones are Games, Board and Otherwise25 and Board Games26.

Flea Markets and Thrift Stores: You can often find used board games for next to nothing at flea markets and thrift stores. Often these are vintage games that either have newer versions out or are no longer in production.

The Natural World

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The inspirational opportunities present in the natural world around us could make an entire post all on their own. There are literally thousands, if not millions, of things to be inspired by around the world and in our own backyards. Birds, trees, animals, bugs, the sky, mountains, valleys, deserts, rivers, lakes, the list could go on forever.

When you’re lacking inspiration, try taking a walk through a nearby field, park, forest, or other natural space. Look around at the shape and texture of things, the colors, the patterns, and anything else that catches your eye. You’re almost sure to find something you can apply to your projects if you take the time to look.

Where to Find Inspiration

Obviously, the natural world is all around us, even if we live in an urban area (just look at grass growing up through cracks in a sidewalk, birds in a park, etc.). But here are some ideas for finding even more inspiration:

Flickr Groups: Again, Flickr Groups are a great source to find inspiring nature photography. A few specific groups to try: Spectacular Nature28, #1 Nature and Wildlife Photographers Corner29, The Worlds Best Nature, Wildlife, and Macro Photography30, and Nature, Wildlife, and the Great Outdoors31.

National Geographic: Whether you look through new or old issues, National Geographic32 is filled with amazing nature photos and stories. There’s plenty of inspiration on their website, too.

Travel

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Traveling to new places can be a great way to feel inspired again. Whether you take a day trip, go away for a weekend, or go on a weeks-long exotic vacation, a change of scenery can go a long way toward getting your creative juices flowing again.

Try going somewhere you’ve never been before, or somewhere you haven’t been to in a very long while. Take the time to experience the place you’re visiting, and stay away from the tourist traps as much as possible.

Your mode of travel may be almost as important as your destination. When so many of us go on vacation, we immediately think of flying somewhere. But why not try taking a train or a bus instead? Or drive, if wherever you’re going isn’t too far away. A change in your travel mode may inspire you, too.

Music

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Listening to music can be a fantastic way to get past a creative block. A lot of us listen to music while we work, but other than finding music that’s “motivational”, I’m sure we usually don’t put a whole lot of thought into what we’re listening to while we’re working on a particular project.

But if you tailor your music choices to the project at hand, you may find that you’re even more inspired. For example, let’s say you’re designing a site for a shop that sells maternity clothes. Listening to death metal while designing probably isn’t going to put you in the best frame of mind for designing. Something a bit lighter might work a lot better for you. Or let’s say you’re designing a site for a cutting-edge new web app that’s set to revolutionize some industry or other. Listening to Baroque music probably isn’t going to help you very much. So think through what your project is really about, and then try to tailor your music to the feeling you want to create.

Try to create a mental image as you’re listening to particular music, and then translate that into your projects. If you’re listening to the right music, it’s likely you’ll come up with some kind of image that can be applied to your design sooner or later.

A word of caution, though: If you hate classical music, or jazz, or country, or any other musical genre, don’t force yourself to listen to it just because it fits your current project best. All you’ll do is annoy yourself. Instead, design in silence or pick a more mellow/energetic/whatever version of the music you normally listen to.

Where to Find Inspiration

There are a few sources for finding music for your current project if you’re not sure exactly what kind of music fits.

Pandora: So, you know that a particular song fits the project you’re working on, but you’re not familiar with that particular genre. Just type in the song or artist name and you’ll be fed a playlist of similar music. You can vote songs up or down while you’re listening, so you won’t hear those songs you hate anymore, and will hear more of the stuff you like.

20 Fantastic Ways to Find New Music That You Like: A post from Inspired Magazine that can point you in the right direction for finding new music.

Music-Map: Just type in the name of an artist, and Music-Map35 will give you a mind-map like display of similar artists.

Crafts

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The world of artisan crafts is filled with some incredibly talented people. The world of crafts is no longer just populated with tea cozies and crocheted toilet paper roll covers. Unique designs abound and are an excellent source of creative inspiration. Plus, because craft designs are far removed from web design, there’s very little chance of being accused of copying someone else’s creation, and there’s plenty of room for your own interpretation.

Look at the shapes, textures, and patterns as sources of inspiration. Color is also easily adapted.

Where to Find Inspiration

The world of handcrafts has exploded online, but not every craft site and blog out there is necessarily going to be a wealth of design inspiration (see previous comment about crocheted toilet paper roll covers). Here are some great sources, though:

Etsy: Etsy37 is the premier online handcrafts shop. It’s populated by hundreds of thousands of artisans from all over the world, and has some truly extraordinary talent. Be sure to browse their showcases, treasuries, and The Storque38 (their blog) for some of the best picks.

Craft and Make: Craft39 and Make40 Magazines are both great sources for finding handcrafted items. They’re both filled with tutorials and examples. Craft tends to lean a bit more toward traditional arts and crafts (with a twist) while Make is more technical and scientific-focused.

Craftster: Craftster41 is a great blog and community filled with examples, inspiration, and tutorials. It’s aimed at hipsters and has more edge than most traditional crafts blogs.

Local Artisans Guilds and Craft Fairs: Many areas have either an artisans guild where you can view crafts from local artisans, or have annual craft fairs (often associated with the holiday season, though others hold them in the summer). These can be a great place to find inspiration. Taking photos can be a great way to capture whatever inspires you, but make sure you ask before shooting pics of anyone else’s creations (crafters can get very possessive of the things they create).

Food

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The sensations that go along with eating can be a fantastic way to unleash your creativity. If you’re feeling uninspired, try going out to your favorite restaurant or cooking your favorite meal. But go beyond just eating and really think about your food. If you’re cooking, consider the ingredients you’re putting into the meal and what each one adds to the finished result. The same goes for eating out; think about the different flavors and how they complement or compete with each other in the finished dish.

Don’t overlook the presentation of your food, either. Look at the way the food is placed on the plate, whether there is any garnish, how much empty space there is around the food, etc. All of these things add to the dining experience. Consider how you might be able to apply the same concepts to your own projects.

Illustrated Picture Books

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Children’s picture books are often filled with wonderful graphics. The illustrations themselves are one source of inspiration, but also the typography and the page layouts beyond the illustrations can be just as valuable.

Look at the colors, the fonts used (and their sizes) and how the type is positioned on the page. Also check out how the text is balanced with the graphic elements, and how the amount of information on each page is limited. All of these are valuable lessons that you can apply to your own designs.

Where to Find Inspiration

You may have some picture books from your own childhood sitting in a box somewhere (or your parents might still have them). Start with those, but also explore these other sources:

Google Books: You can search Google Books44 for both public domain and newer children’s books. While those not in the public domain will be limited in what you can view, older books are often available in full and can be acquired online.

Your Local Library: Local libraries often have a huge selection of picture books available. And the best part is that you can borrow them for free.

Used Bookstores: Used bookstores also often have a large selection of children’s books, including older ones you might not see elsewhere.

Movies and Television

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Title sequences in movies and television are the most obvious places to look for inspiration, but set and costume design can also be useful in finding solutions to design problems. Historical films often have fantastic settings and costumes, as do science fiction and fantasy. Contemporary films can also have a wealth of potential design inspirations.

Pay attention to the visual aspects of the next movie or television show you watch and try to think of ways they could be applied to your design projects. Also pay attention to secondary products associated with television and movies, such as commercials and promotional posters. These can be a huge source of inspiration as well.

Conclusion

Stepping away from the places we normally seek inspiration can lead to a whole new world of creative sources. Try keeping a file of potential ideas, images, and other materials garnered from these sources, either on your computer or in physical form. Then you can pull from it even when pressed for time.

If you have any other unconventional sources for design inspiration, please share them in the comments! What are you inspired by?

(vf)

Footnotes

  1. 1 http://www.flickr.com/photos/peiranliu/3043330380/
  2. 2 http://style.com
  3. 3 http://nymag.com/daily/fashion/
  4. 4 http://www.thesartorialist.blogspot.com/
  5. 5 http://www.fashiontoast.com/
  6. 6 http://www.signature9.com/style-99
  7. 7 http://www.flickr.com/photos/mendhak/3565306211/
  8. 8 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Art_Nouveau
  9. 9 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Craftsman
  10. 10 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prairie_Style
  11. 11 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Art_Deco
  12. 12 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_style_%28architecture%29
  13. 13 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mid-century_modern
  14. 14 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Postmodern_architecture
  15. 15 http://www.inhabitat.com/
  16. 16 http://archidose.blogspot.com/
  17. 17 http://eyecandy-webcandy.blogspot.com/
  18. 18 http://www.flickr.com/photos/gdominici/90992074/
  19. 19 http://flickr.com
  20. 20 http://deviantart.com
  21. 21 http://www.flickr.com/photos/mckaysavage/2508068648/
  22. 22 http://www.thedieline.com/
  23. 23 http://www.flickr.com/groups/packaged/
  24. 24 http://www.flickr.com/photos/andymangold/3113733883/
  25. 25 http://www.flickr.com/groups/gamesboardandotherwise/
  26. 26 http://www.flickr.com/groups/board-games/
  27. 27 http://www.flickr.com/photos/banibani/233804199/
  28. 28 http://www.flickr.com/groups/spectacular_nature/
  29. 29 http://www.flickr.com/groups/nature__wildlife_photographers_corner/
  30. 30 http://www.flickr.com/groups/camera/
  31. 31 http://www.flickr.com/groups/_n_w_outdoors/
  32. 32 http://www.nationalgeographic.com/
  33. 33 http://www.flickr.com/photos/brostad/2762429271/
  34. 34 http://www.flickr.com/photos/gallery-art/3497849677/
  35. 35 http://www.music-map.com/
  36. 36 http://www.flickr.com/photos/sycamoremoonstudios/3567707408/
  37. 37 http://www.etsy.com
  38. 38 http://www.etsy.com/storque/
  39. 39 http://craftzine.com/
  40. 40 http://makezine.com/
  41. 41 http://www.craftster.org/
  42. 42 http://www.flickr.com/photos/joeandsarah/2596329869/
  43. 43 http://www.flickr.com/photos/22280677@N07/3475701403/
  44. 44 http://books.google.com/
  45. 45 http://www.flickr.com/photos/tnarik/442604268/

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Cameron Chapman is a professional Web and graphic designer with over 6 years of experience. She writes for a number of blogs, including her own, Cameron Chapman On Writing. She’s also the author of The Smashing Idea Book: From Inspiration to Application.

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  1. 1

    Remarkable article for any creative type. Makes this post uninspiring: http://blog.webcopyplus.com/2009/02/04/5-points-of-inspiration-for-web-design-vol-1/ :)

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  2. 52

    OK, I’m a little sad now… I found Monopoly Nostalgia, and Monopoly 1935 in a search for that version only to discover that it was a one-off design from Andy Goldman. He needs to get that produced!

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  3. 103

    You forgot that we find most of our inspiration from love!

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  4. 154

    What I find inspiring very often is the clean and (often white) environment of the bathroom. Sounds crazy, but it is good helper as it assists you to focus and concentrate – there’s nothing to disturb you.

    Thx for this anti-tunnel-view article!

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  5. 205

    Posters are a wonderful reference too. Movie posters, I mean. They are absolutely rich in all aspects of design – color, font, perspective, placement, light and shadow… I love refering posters when I need inspiration.

    Thank you for a great article.

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  6. 256

    Le Nuage des Filles

    March 11, 2010 4:17 am

    You can find style inspiration on this site : Le Nuage des Filles ;)
    Have a nice browse
    lenuagedesfilles.com

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  7. 307

    True, inspiration is everywhere! Its the stimuli around us and it depends on which one we wanted to respond to. I usually got inspired by unique styles in arts and fashion.

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  8. 358

    A great reminder on how inspiration is all around us!

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  9. 409

    Thanks for the article. It has great information i will use more when i need. I am agree with you that foods and meals help a lot for getting inspiration sometimes. For me turkish coffee is a great drink which helps me for getting more concentrated what i am working on. Try to find specific foods and drinks which will help you with the work you are working on.

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  10. 460

    There is a few come up here which I would of never thought of, but I regularly use architecture and music as a source of inspiration. I live in the North East of England and am fortunate to have some beautiful examples of Victorian architecture.

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  11. 511

    When I visited Japan, I noticed that they synthesized ideas from widely divergent sources.

    Some industrial design that they did was incredible. See this design for a solar cooker:
    http://rodgerswriting.blogspot.com/2010/05/cool-stuff-at-1989-world-design-expo.html

    Another idea I saw on TV was a robot used in a car factory. The assembler sat on it, and it moved him into the car interior to work. It saved a lot of crouching, leg work, back problems. The inspiration? Someone had gone scuba diving, and saw a long sea animal probe into small places. Cool.

    I think it’s because they are so literate and educated. As well, they have different priorities. While the US universities produce many lawyers to engineers, the Japanese are opposite, producing multiples more engineers than lawyers.

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  12. 562

    Great article! The world is full of inspiration as long as one takes the time to notice.

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  13. 613

    Nice article.
    I liked the ideas. Thank you for sharing.

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  14. 664

    I cling on to listening to the newscast speak about receiving boundless online grant applications so I have been looking around for the finest site to get one. Could you tell me please, where could i find some?

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  15. 715

    i want to create a unconventional dress for winter festive. i’m inspired by spices. i’m creating a dress to use with red chillies. and i was searching that is their any one has taken this idea earlier or not.

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  16. 766

    My favorite sources of inspiration?
    For ideas that delight my brain? ted.com
    Interviews that inspire and fascinate? charlierose.com
    The best selection of downloads to listen to when creating?
    premieraudiobooks.com Premier has a free weekly e-mail
    worth signing up for, it sends you the New York Times Bestsellers
    list. It’s cool, quick and keeps me informed and inspired.
    For great visual images, I go to pinterest.com

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  17. 817

    thanx this article was realy helping and excellent. i took shoes as source of inspiration for my colege project dresses.it was great now thinking to have another excellent source of inspiration but this time it will surely be much better then former as now i have back knowledge of your tips. thanx well done

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