October 3rd, 2017

All designers, regardless of experience or skill, will eventually find themselves creatively drained and struggling for motivation. The natural instinct for many is to hop on sites like Dribbble and Behance for that creative boost.

These sites are invaluable as they allow us to endlessly share, brainstorm, and collaborate with designers from all over the world. Additionally, because much of the showcased work is free of constraints from demanding clients, tight deadlines, or shoestring budgets, we can view inspiration without limitation. 

But — endless possibilities must be balanced with the hard and fast realties of serving client and project needs. So how can this type of inspiration fit responsibly into our lives as designers? How can we achieve a healthy mix of thinking critically and originally, while still leveraging the endless sources of inspiration around us? The answer is all about balance.

What Inspiration Should Be:

  • A catalyst: We all need that spark to get us going. Sometimes seeing great design is enough: even if the project in question has no bearing on your own work.
  • The pulse of the design community: See what new and unorthodox ideas are out there. Get a feel for the latest trends (both good and bad) so you can be prepared when a client asks for the latest cool thing.
  • A way to make connections: See a piece of design you love? Reach out and say so! Ask questions, start a conversation, and you’ll be surprised how many designers are eager to engage.
  • Encouragement for fledgling designers: It’s helpful as a new or inexperienced designer to see what is possible with time and practice. Alternatively, veteran designers can experience what’s possible in a land free of demanding clients and budget constraints. No matter your experience level, it is valuable to see what the design community is working on.
  • A chance to look with a critical eye: Look more closely at projects and evaluate the details. Critique the work of others and don’t ever assume a design is without flaws just because you think it is "better" than your work at first glance.

What Inspiration is Not:

  • A replacement for the design process: Seeing a product in its finished state increases the risk of abbreviating or even skipping the design process all together. Make sure you are doing your due diligence in solving your unique set of problems.
  • A substitute for your own ideas: See if you can solve the problem on your own before seeing how others have done it. Chances are your ideas hold more merit than you think. You may not always be on the right track but trying first then seeing a different interpretation can help you refine how you approach a similar problem in the future.
  • The appropriate way to set expectations: Do some digging on a project posted online and you will likely have questions. How long did it take? How many people were involved? Was this for a real client or a fun exploration? The reality is that many of the projects posted online are more involved than you might think. That stunning app may have taken months to create. That snazzy website may have been the work of a seasoned 10-person team. That illustration may have had a budget with a few more zeros than expected. There is often no way to tell so keep that in the back of your mind when you get that twinge of inadequacy on the fourth page of browsing Dribbble.

Getting motivated by these types of sites is great. It is healthy to design with a “sky’s the limit” attitude because it’s almost always better to scale down a great idea, than to inflate a mediocre one. Keep in mind how realistically ideas from the Internet fit into your bigger picture.

A Healthy Mix of Inspiration is Key:

  • Explore live sites: Live sites are accountable to users and stakeholders and set more realistic standards. Peruse the Internet; see what works, and what doesn’t. What sites are making tasks easier and more efficient for users? What sites best harmonize design with functionality? What sites push the envelope but don’t alienate?
  • Do a side project: Even if it’s just an hour-long exercise, work on something that’s just for you. Create a logo, illustrate last nights dream, redesign an app; anything goes. With no constraints, your imagination can run free.
  • Engage friends and family: People around you are free user research! Your friends and family likely represent how most non-industry folks perceive technology and design. The next time your mom or dad complains about the difficulty of navigating a webpage or how hard it is to use the DVR, start a conversation around the user experience. It is easy to forget that most of the public has a very different take on design than those creating it. A reality check is helpful once in awhile.
  • Build a prototype: Give your static designs some life. There are more prototyping tools now than ever before with new offerings popping up almost monthly. Adding functionality to an existing, static design can help connect fragmented ideas when you are feeling stuck. Plus it’s great to stay up to date with industry tools that you may want to adopt for your own workflow.
  • Go old school: Draw, sketch, build something, play with Legos, go for a walk, whatever. Step away from that keyboard and do something else creative. You’ll be amazed how a clear head will make you feel more inspired when you get back to work.

Designers face a unique set of challenges. They must harmonize art and business, communicate effectively, create exciting work, satisfy clients of all types, and embrace these challenges in innovative ways. It is often necessary to reach outside our own bubble when seeking inspiration. When motivation stems from multiple sources and is used judiciously, designers can grow and evolve.

So keep seeking out that inspiration online but never, ever let it take the place of your own instinct, idiosyncrasies, talent, drive, or passion.