The importance of drawing inspiration for designers

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With originality as our holy grail, designers often forgo searching for inspiration. Yet looking outwards is absolutely essential.

8 min read

A pile of posters that read: Existing ideas fresh connections.

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As designers, we’re paid for our ideas. We build brands from the ground up and draw out entire platforms. We imagine, dream and invent, not just because it’s our career, but because it’s our passion.

Like any other professional, it’s hard to admit when you’ve reached the limits of your capabilities, or when you’ve hit a wall and are unable to use your creativity to solve a problem. Sometimes it can make you feel like a fraud or that you’re bad at your job. We want to feel competent and creative. Encountering a roadblock can make us get defensive about our skills and retreat inward when, in fact, we should be opening up and reaching outward for solutions to our problems.

If we can admit that we can look to others for inspiration, we can elevate ourselves as creatives. We don’t have to be the end-all-be-all of original thinking. Where our ideas come from is irrelevant as long as we’re doing our job well.

Stop reinventing the wheel

It’s common to feel like you need to have entirely original ideas. Working in a creative field is largely subjective, and our ideas are what we’re getting paid for, so it’s reasonable to feel that your work needs to be completely new. However, this mindset is actually hurting your designs and your development as a designer.

Drawing inspiration from others’ work isn’t “cheating”; designers do it all of the time.

Even big companies will mimic styles or UI elements. For example, Google’s Material Design FAB (floating action button) made its way into many popular iOS apps, despite not being in the Apple guidelines. Instagram, too, has “borrowed” Snapchat’s stories and redesigned them in a way that made more sense for their platform.

Using other designs as a springboard is a great way to start working on a feature with a sense of what works and how it can be implemented. It also saves you from trying to do something completely new for UI elements that are already common and don’t need to be reimagined.

For example, if you are implementing a photo gallery upload in your app. Trying to make something completely different than what the native modal looks like–or messengers and social media apps use–will prove not only difficult, but also counterproductive.

Going out of your way to use different elements from the ones they’re using will likely lead to an awkward implementation that isn’t user-friendly. Instead, looking to those existing features will allow you to see which parts of them would work well for your specific needs and how to approach your design with those observations in mind.

Learn to look at different designs and pick up small parts that you feel would make sense for your project, whether it’s layout concepts, sizing, or navigation.

Inspiration in design - Instagram and Snapchat similarities
The stories feature on both Instagram (left) and Snapchat (right).

Look for inspiration

Where to go

Bookmarking a list of go-to places for design inspiration is a boon for any designer, but it’s important to know what to look for and how to use them. It’s a good idea to look at current design trends regularly, even when you’re not working on a specific feature. There are also many talented designers out there whom you can follow for general research and aesthetic inspiration.

When looking for ideas pertaining to a new feature, there are a lot of different places to draw ideas from, but they largely break into three categories.

Design sites:

Well-known websites like Dribbble and Behance act as both portfolios and social networks for designers. Using design and web design inspiration sites is a great way to challenge yourself to improve your skills and research how others have imagined a feature you’re working on, and to see the feedback they received.

An important caveat when browsing these designs is that they’re usually UI-centric and not as UX-focused. This doesn’t always matter, but, occasionally, you’ll see stunning re-imaginings of common features that are lacking functionality or have confusing UX upon closer inspection.

Even when designs look very impressive or are created by well-respected designers, you should still look for where they can be improved. Your opinions and insights always matter, no matter whose design you’re looking at.

Relevant apps and websites:

When you’ve been assigned a feature that’s been done in other platforms, the first thing you should do is look at how they approached the design. This will set the standard for what’s already out there and give you ideas on how a similar take might work on your platform. Sometimes, very different products have overlapping features.

For example, a TV-streaming app and an online course library might each have a “my list” feature that allows you to save videos to watch later, but the nature of the platform will dictate how the feature is implemented. A list of TV shows is much lower commitment than a list of courses, so a TV-streaming platform can present you with shows you’ve saved but aren’t currently watching on your homepage.

Courses, on the other hand, are long and require your full attention. Seeing a long list of those every time you open the page might be overwhelming. The context of a platform makes a big difference in implementation, and, sometimes, that’s what’s going to drive a concept forward.