designing ebooks and other fun things

Looking for inspiration in all the wrong places



A pleasant conversation stalls when I hear a seemingly innocent question:

“So do you have any sites that you look at for inspiration? Can you share?”

I blink. I pause. I want to scream “GET AWAY FROM THE COMPUTER!” But I don’t.

It isn’t the first time I hear the question. Yet, when I say, “no, not really,” it seems that my answer is met with a hearty dose of doubt, and suspicion that I simply don’t want to share my sources.

The thing is, I really don’t.

Browsing for inspiration is something I might do towards the end of a project. To see if there is a specific style I missed. Or just to check if this has been done to death. But doing this in the beginning, to find that sparkle of an idea, is a rabbit hole so deep that I would emerge days later with my thoughts in a jumble — only to realize that none of those screenshots I gathered help me find the core idea, but simply the style I might use to represent it.

This is not the place to start.

There is a tiny little book written way back in 1965 (well before design “inspiration” articles existed on the internet, or the internet itself for that matter) that summarizes my — and, I suspect, many others’ — inspiration process perfectly.

This book is A Technique for Producing Ideas by James Webb Young. I may have brought it up before. And probably will again. I won’t go into the details here, but here is something that I find very, very relevant — and often misinterpreted.

“This technique of the mind follows five steps. (..
The first of these steps is for the mind to gather its raw material.(…) The materials which must be gathered are of two kinds: they are specific and they are general.”

I’m sure this must sound like it’s contradicting my “ignore inspiration articles” stand, but it isn’t. The book then goes into an explanation of what these specific and general materials are.

Guess what? Neither of them can be found in inspirational articles.

The specifics, of course, have to do with the specific client and industry, their consumers, the situation, the product, and so on. The general materials are, quite simply, the tidbits of facts already stored in your brain — topics you know a lot about, curious facts and sayings overheard and remembered, the overwhelmingly energizing vibe you felt from a person, the sounds of your favorite summer vacation… anything that you are curious or excited about. Anything that wakes up a feeling, anything that triggers a memory.

(You may think the feeling, the emotion is unique for you. Chances are, it isn’t. Being able to relate to each others’ feelings and emotions is what makes us human. Use that to express your ideas better, to make them memorable. Even when executed in a rough form, this kind of a concept is much, much more powerful than a highly polished presentation using the latest techniques — yet with no substance behind it. But I will ramble about rough vs. polished and style vs. substance in another post very, very soon, I promise.)

These general materials can not be gathered browsing the examples of what others have done. That’s just style, not substance. Possibly useful towards the end, but again — not a good place to start.

General materials are gathered by living. Being curious and open-minded, allowing your thoughts to wonder. Your brain will make the connection with the specifics when it’s needed.

There are sources of inspiration everywhere you look. You just have to be willing to take them in.

For me, it goes something like this:


The market is crowded, overflowing with ethnic handmade accessories and fabrics, spices and delicacies. I am unexplicably drawn to a fabric stall. The textured, subtly transparent piece of green-and-yellow cloth is overlaying a silky white one. The play of light adds to the not-quite-see-through effect. It has a sensual and magical vibe — yet extremely subtle. I don’t realize it at the time, but my brain takes a snapshot and files it.

Months later, when I am looking to add that splash of subtly sensual vibe to a website, I instantly know that this is the kind of look I want to recreate.


I am running. Every time my foot lands on the road, it raises a small cloud of dust. The day before, it had rained, and there are still some small puddles of water, which I don’t notice until I land directly in one of them. My shoes are a curious mix of grey, brown and green grass stains.

I pass a girl walking in the opposite direction. She is choosing her path carefully. Her shoes are shiny and new, pure white with bright colored details and stitching.

The contrast between worn, dusty, stained Nikes and shiny new ones registers for just a second. It reminds me I was the same just a couple of months ago. I trust my brain to remember this when I need a visual that shows the difference between just dressing like someone who exercises and just doing it.


As I turn the corner, another song comes up on my MP3 player, and the lyrics catch my attention. “There is nothing special about me,” is the first line — but then everything else contradicts it. In a charming, unassuming way. And I wonder whether this approach can be somehow infused into the newsletter of a client who is very much like that — matter-of-fact and unassuming, yet very special and unique at the same time.

I could go on and on, but you get the point:

Inspiration is EVERYWHERE.

As long as you are open to it, it will find you. The key, funnily enough, is NOT trying to focus.

And this isn’t just true for design, communication, and advertising. Solutions to all kinds of stuck can be found in most unlikely places. So go find it! Walk, run, meet a friend. Go window shopping. Listen to some music. Dance around. Do anything you want, just get away from the computer! You can afford to take an break for an hour or two, I promise. Especially if you were planning to spend this hour browsing for inspiration.

(You can take notes when you come back.)







Still here? Just go already! You can thank me later.

4 Comments on this Post.

  1. Ahhh, Lisa – yet another excellent insight into your magical process.

    :~) Nan

  2. Also, if you go to external inspiration first, how do you know what’s coming from your genius, your unique voice? Like you, I often read other blogs after I’m done a post, more to get a sense of what’s going on in the world and am I in tune with it!

    Great post Lisa!

    • Exactly! (Almost wishing I had written that sentence in the post now! ;) )

      Thanks Sandi!

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