10 Unusual Places to Get Design Inspiration

Jun 23 2009 by Kayla Knight | 42 Comments

Inspiration isn’t something that just pops into a designer’s head. Most of the time, we must make an active approach to discover it. This obviously isn’t a new concept, and there are thousands of inspiration websites from CSS galleries to showcase blog posts. These are way overused, though; in order to create a truly successful design, one must find inspiration elsewhere.

10 Unusual Places to Get Design Inspiration

Design clearly isn’t new, and before we got into the habit of spending hours in front of a computer screen, the word’s greatest artists found inspiration from an offline world. To create extraordinary design, search in new places besides CSS galleries and showcases. Here are ten unusual places to get started, where one can look to find truly unique inspiration.

1. Different Eras

Each era in time presents a different culture, lifestyle, and a different style of art. Why must that be buried in time? Think of a time in the past — or if you’re feeling really creative — a time in the future. Think about the buildings, people, art, culture, events, and even the emotions that run through that era.

Art Throughout the Eras

For a relatively recent example: imagine post World War II. It is a well known time for reawakening, rejoicing, and individualism. At this time, abstract art came about in great numbers.

Andy Warhol Jackson Pollock Sam Gilliam David Smith Kenneth Noland Helen Frankenthaler

A look at past (or future) art can inspire one to think differently, and perhaps help to not follow the flow of today’s artists.

A Look at Everything Else

Let’s think beyond the art, though, for more inspiration. Again, following our post World War II example, look at some of the people, objects, and culture that came about.

Coca Cola Era Post WWII Fashion Post WWII Movie Poster

From poster to product design, this era presented more than the recent political happenings. There’s a lot more to this era, and any era for that matter, than in the images shown above. Focusing on bringing that era to life on the web can make a great design.

Showcase of Era-Inspired Web Design

Just to take a look at how researching another era can relate to design, here are some great examples of time-inspired websites.

50's Era Web Design

Late 1800's Era Web Design

A Futuristic Era Web Design

Renaissance Era Web Design

Web Design Inspired by Classical Art

Another 1800's Web Design

Vintage Web Design

There’s really not a lot of variety in era-inspired web design; Many of them are retro, 50′s and 60′s style. However, that’s all the more reason designers should look into it. It’d be interesting to see what designer’s could come up with if they started thinking more about different times throughout history.

2. Nature

It’s been said a thousand times, but it’s going to be said once more — nature is a great source for design inspiration. However, many designers don’t know how to look at nature in order to draw the inspiration out.

Below are two techniques to looking at nature differently. Of course, there are many more, and many are specific to individual designers. Learn from the two below, and try to create your own technique for finding inspiration in nature.

A Different Perspective

A person can walk outside and see nature everyday. It’s pretty outside, but really — no big deal. Putting nature into a different perspective, though, can make things interesting. A good designer knows how to make the viewer focus on a certain point, or feel a certain way. As one can see from below, simply putting nature into new perspective can make a viewer look at and appreciate nature in a more meaningful way.

Nature in Perspective
Photo credit to marikp1018-analogue and Fort Photo on Flickr.

The perspective photo on the right is no longer the ‘everyday’ photo of a swimming duck. This can go beyond perspective photography. Think of it as a thought process, and start trying to view nature in a new way. Change your perspective to create original and interesting design.

Looking Close

Nick La from Web Designer Wall is a well-known and incredibly talented web/graphic designer. He is one to often say that nature is his biggest inspiration. In his post, Design Process of the Phoenix, he shares insight on how he achieves unique and beautiful design from the same elements in nature that others don’t give a second glance.

Web Design Inspired by Classical Art

Another 1800's Web Design

Vintage Web Design

Nick’s trick is to look at a certain element in nature, and view it close up. He’ll look at the texture, color, shape and variation, and then put it into design perspective. He shares more of his insight in his post, Finding Inspiration.

Showcase of Nature in Web Design

The small showcase below shows how nature can inspire design. Note that all of them are in some sort of unique perspective, making them interesting designs.

Studio7Designs

Ek & Gren

Blogfullbliss

WWF Brasil

CSS Nature

Tapada

3. The City

Quite the opposite of nature is city life. Large cities have so much variety, color, personality, and action that it’s hard to ignore it as a source for inspiration. If one is from a larger city, it may be difficult to view it in such a way. Take a closer look though, and recognize buildings, art, and culture.

City Art

Take a walk downtown. Large scultpures like these are used throughout cities to promote artistic creativity, and can even be an effective marketing strategy when placed in front of company buildings.

A Sculpture in Toronto, Canada Location: Gallery KCSP Location: Gallery KCSP

These sculptures can range from abstract forms, to out of place elements, to representing a piece of the city’s history and culture. Don’t copy, of course, but this is quite an interesting form of art to admire and draw inspiration from.

Architecture

The coolest buildings always seem to be from large cities. Passing by we may notice and recognize their beauty, but how often does one take that beauty and turn it into design?

Architecture in Toronto, Canada Architecture in Toronto, Canada Architecture in Toronto, Canada

Whether a building is interesting because it’s incredibly tall, oddly unique, or beautifully historic, each building in a city can tell an inspirational story. Study the lines, textures, and shapes used in intriguing city architecture for your own creative outlet.

Billboards

There’s an awe-factor to city billboards. The lights, size, and mere creativity of advertisement in bigger cities can be very inspirational.

Times Square, NY Tokyo Billboard Tokyo Billboard

Take a walk down a major shopping district and study the billboards as an art form. View them during the day and at night for two different perspectives.

4. The Mall

Everything that can be sold in a mall is designed in some way. Clothing, jewelry, toys, and even food. Walk into a clothing store and find shapes and patterns. Walk into a toy store and notice colors, shapes, and themes. Even a food market uses ineresting design to make the food look delectible — both with the advertising, and the food product itself.

Coach Store Mall Fountain Mall Food Court Candle Store in Mall Mall Kiosk Mannequins in Mall

In addition, take in the people, sound, and experience as a whole into inspiration perspective. Anything from a kiosk to a central fountain may be enough to inspire design.

5. The Library

For a quieter creative outlet, go to your local library. A place with colors, interesting shapes, and patterns are what most think of when looking for inspiration. However, we often underestimate our own imagination. Go to the library, find an article, book, or journal, and let your mind do the rest.

Children’s Book Illustrations

As a good example of where to start, think of a illustrator’s job for a children’s book. They must read a children’s book, and fill in the visual aspect with their own creativity.

Children's Book Illustration

Go into the children’s section and pick out a few favorites. Better yet, find books you enjoyed as a child yourself; Sometimes memory can spark bigger inspiration. From illustrator style to special effects, like the hole cutouts in the book above, children’s books are meant to inspire.

Oh, the Places You'll Go, Dr. Suess Shel Silverstein Poem The Rainbow Fish

The really cool thing about using books as inspiration is that they contain strategically placed text when used with illustration. This can easily be compared to web design, and may initiate some ideas about content placement and typography.

One’s Own Imagination

Another way of using a library for inspiration is to pick up a book, article, or journal without images. It can be fiction or not; a story or a study. Draw out a descriptive paragraph, the emotion felt, or your reaction of the reading to create a design

Create your own Book Illustration Book Illustration Book Illustration

Even without actually seeing anything besides letters and words, books can put ideas in your head, whether it be of the story itself or of a random thought triggered by the text.

6. Magazines

Similar to books, magazines have images and stategically placed content that can inspire. Magazines, though, can be much more closely related to the web in terms of design. While a book can spark creativity for a sketch, a magazine can spark inspiration for typography, images, and layout. Not to mention, if you run a blog, inspiration for titles and content ideas.

Page Design

Magazine pages aren’t limited to CSS like web pages are. Many times a web designer will go with a layout structure they’re used to, but the freedom of magazine layouts remind us that we can still changed up the layout structure, while keeping readability.

Magazine Page Layout Magazine Page Layout Magazine Page Layout

Ad or Graphic Design

Similar design principles are used in magazine design as online. If a graphic catches your eye, stop and analyze it. Is it the color? The creativity? The layout? Truly analyzing what makes the most attractive designs so unique, can help us further our own talents.

Magazine Graphic Design Magazine Graphic Design Magazine Ad

Typography

An added benefit of magazines that other forms of inspiration don’t have, is great typography examples. Because typography is so important in web design, and typography-based design is also growing in popularity, we designers can use all the examples and inspiration we can get in this form.

Magazine Typography Magazine Typography Magazine Typography

Design Magazines

Let’s not rule out design magazines themselves.

While design magazines don’t seem to be an ‘unusual’ place to get inspiration, they’re inspiration nonetheless. Sometimes looking through a printed magazine, away from your computer screen, can be more beneficial.

7. Business Cards

Business cards are getting a lot of attention in the online design world recently. What better time to take them in for inspiration? Even if you’re not at a stage where you need personal business cards, they’re starting to become a unique form of inspiration.

Jose Contreras

Poul Nielson

Marcy Richards

David Panarelli

Jim Profitt

Sara Mantle

Many creative business cards are becoming more than a small piece of paper. Use this knowledge to up your own level of design.

8. Music & Album Covers

Album covers are the ultimate of creative and original art. They can represent different eras, different style, and portray emotion. Take a look at the album covers of the music you like yourself. It may very well represent your own design style.

Album Cover

Album Cover

Album Cover

Album Cover

Album Cover

Album Cover

Just the Music

If looking at album covers isn’t doing the trick, just try listening to music, and creating a composition around a style, band, or specific song. Start with a blank sheet, and free write/free draw whatever comes into your head.

By getting out the deepest subconcious level of your creativity out on paper, you can create a consious, more formal design. Use music for inspiration, and use the abstract words and feelings you think of to design the rest.

9. High-Speed Photography

High-speed photography is a form of abstract photography that is sure to inspire. There are thousands of these high-speed examples, using physics as design. Here are three great examples, but a link to the Flickr gallery for high-speed photography is below for more.

High-Speed Photography

High-Speed Photography

High-Speed Photography

To see more examples, check out the High-Speed Photography Flickr Group.

Some really neat effects can be made, and although these are real shots, we get an unreal feelings. Look at the color, shapes, and proxmity of these amazing pieces.

10. Away From it All

If all else has failed, and good enough inspiration cannot be found, there’s only one place left to find it: away from it all. Our brains do funny things, and sometimes when we start thinking too hard, we can’t see the big picture. Go do something mindless — find something away from creativity.

Take a Break

Take a walk, watch TV, or hang out with some old friends. Doing other tasks can do one of two things: 1) It can clear your head, so when you do come back to looking for inspiration, you may think of something you could not think of before or 2) that mindless task may bring out emotion and thought, creating an ‘ah-hah’ moment for inspiration.

Wrapping Up

Great designs can only be created from original thinkers. Become an original thinker by following the advice above and finding new ways to look at everyday things.

Any designer has his or her own unique practice for finding inspiration and design process for creating something out of nothing.

How do you find design inspiration?

How do you inspire yourself creatively? Share your opinions and tips with us in the comments.

Related content

About the Author

Kayla Knight is a 20 yr. old college student, part-time web developer, freelancer, and blogger. In her spare time she maintains Webitect.net, a resource blog for webmasters. She also writes for top blogs like Smashing Magazine and Web Designer Depot. You can get a hold of her through her blog, or follow her on twitter@Webitect

42 Comments

divinefusion

June 23rd, 2009

Fantastic post! Great job for collecting all this in one post Kayla! I love looking at fashion, fine art, magazines, taking pictures etc. They all go in my inspiration folder.

Chris Robinson

June 23rd, 2009

Nice roundup, I remember that “Hungry Caterpillar” book from back in the day lol

Kevin

June 23rd, 2009

Great post! Sometimes you become limited by the trends you see in most websites. These things can help you break out of the box.

chris wilcox

June 23rd, 2009

Great article, Kayla; interesting outlook on a few obscure sources. :)

bryanregencia

June 23rd, 2009

Oh, thanks for sharing. This is very helpful for us, user interface designers. Those are great sites to get thoughts and ideas.

Cheers!

Sneh

June 23rd, 2009

Very inspirational links! Shows you what you can find in the most obscure of resources!

Express

June 24th, 2009

Very helpful article :) thanks

Gregorio Giacinti

June 24th, 2009

Kayla,

I just want to tell you: Marry me!!! loL

AMAIZING POST!!!

Albi

June 24th, 2009

Great work and great research, thanks.

Tyler

June 24th, 2009

I love these showcases of various other work. However what happens when you have a client, like a current one of mine, a building contractor company, what do people think the best way to go about these kinda sites, where design isn’t as free as a personal design site or a media site perhaps.

Barbara

June 24th, 2009

This is a great article, thanks for sharing. Nature and cities are some of the best sources of inspiration for me too. I also like the retro designs. Very nice work :)

Blast

June 24th, 2009

lots of good ideas!

W3planting

June 24th, 2009

very good collection of unusual inspiration!

Julia

June 24th, 2009

great ones!!! thanks a lot! definitely gonna help me a lot!

Toby

June 24th, 2009

Lucida Calligraphy argh!

Robert Fauver

June 24th, 2009

Awesome insight and a good read. Thanks so much!

Tamia

June 24th, 2009

Great ideas! Magazines have always been a source of inspiration for me. I also like looking at jewelry, for some reason–I guess the pattern and detail and sparkle appeal to me!

Dmitri

June 24th, 2009

Yay for tonnes of Toronto pictures!
Good article!

YouON

June 24th, 2009

absolutely great!

Elf Sternberg

June 24th, 2009

Packaging. My god, if you’re not reading The Dieline or Lovely Package, you’re missing out on some of the most brilliant designs ever put together. These people are, in the most fundamental way possible, out to sell something, and understanding how and why they do their work makes a big difference.

When you talk of “different eras,” we have to remember that those eras also had different design sensibilities in different market segments: print, film and packaging all had different approaches. The black-and-grey tint of a silent movie’s well white-spaced placards is a different design theme from the muslin-rag dense-copy newspaper from the same era.

I’ve always thought that 80′s videogames were especially different from other aspects of 80′s art. (Aside: If you want a brief summary of every significant opening title for TV and movies in the 1980′s, you can’t do better than DVNO’s homage, Justice, which hits on HBO, The A-Team, NBC, Sega, PBS, etc. etc.). The design put into the corners of the 1980s, like Joust or Hyperball, deserve resurrection.

And video games are a good idea for web design: if you think in terms of a colorful attract mode, game play, satisficing without full satisfaction (make ‘em want to come back for more), and a promise of recognition (the “high scores” part), you’ve got a good grasp on what makes commercial web design viable.

e11world

June 24th, 2009

Very nice list. This can be used by any web/graphic designer (might need to add a few more samples to each category) as the inspiration for most projects. I will have to print this. Thank you very much.

Joe

June 24th, 2009

My kids love “The Rainbow Fish”

om ipit

June 25th, 2009

this is a great list.
im not blind again how to get design inspiration until i read this post. :-)

Keith D

June 25th, 2009

I’m with Joes kids on this one… i love the fish as well.
The high speed photography is fantastic.

Jacob Gube

June 26th, 2009

@Kayla Knight: Wow, you got a marriage proposal from this article(see @Gregorio Giacinti comment) – that is a testament to how great this piece was, well done!

And to everyone who enjoyed this article: Kayla’s working on even more articles for us so make sure to stay tuned!

Adrian B

June 29th, 2009

Thanks for mentioning my website!

And great article, keep up the good writing.

Phaoloo

July 2nd, 2009

They are awesome sources of inspiration. Keep up with great compilation :D

Sara

August 4th, 2009

Interesting article. You might, however, want to link to your sources. One of the images you’re using is mine, and i’d appreciate at least a link to my website. Shoot me an e-mail, please. Thanks.

Adeel Raza

August 8th, 2009

Great post Jacob! I get alot of inspiration from nature myself. One of my personal favourites to get design inspiration from: http://inspiremix.com

Mart

October 18th, 2009

Typo in your header graphic.

Edward

October 21st, 2009

Hey, Great selection, and I really like your site. However, I feel like I must make a remark about this post. in the “A Different Perspective” section you are completely wrong in the way that you have worded things.
The first duck shot with roughly a 35mm lens which gives something pretty close to a perspective(as in a view composed out of converging parallel lines – see wikipedia for “perspective”). On the other hand, the second duck was shot dead on with a telephoto or maybe even a macro lens which have almost no distortion. In this case, the second picture is the furthest thing from a conventional perspective. In fact it is almost am elevation/projection.
I think your intent is still clear. The second image is defiantly more appealing, but that is simply due to a better quality of photography, which is of course crucial in any design.

bucabay

October 21st, 2009

Good stuff. I think a design perspective is better then looking for inspiration. Trying to look at the everyday world as a design should be the goal. Inspiration will follow.

Bali

November 30th, 2009

I love reading this article. Every designer must be having this time.

Keith Davis

March 6th, 2010

Hi
Been trying to contact the high speed photography guy to see if he will let me use the fish in exploding bowl photo.
Not had any luck.
Anybody got any suggestions?

Taylor

May 14th, 2010

Great Post!!! Fantastic visual research for the story. I will use this when a client slows me down;)

a3u5z1i

June 12th, 2010

I think I can add ‘Blog and Website’ to the list. Many website and blog gave fantastic design inspiration.

From the list, my favorite is mother nature :)
Thanks for sharing..

Monica Gursky

June 16th, 2010

Nicely done – I like the variety of different techniques you covered – I’ve tried them all – and they really do work. Thanks for sharing!

Kadyrova

November 5th, 2010

Really good one! you collect everything in order)

Olaitan

April 6th, 2011

nice jobs, keep it up

Jeppe

June 4th, 2011

Great article, just to let you know that you are part of the required reading for Ba in web development at Knord.dkat Knord.dk

Cathy

September 6th, 2011

Great article! I enjoyed it very much!

kropped

October 4th, 2011

Great article – thanks for your effort!

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