With a plethora of digital portfolios, online magazines and social media profiles available at the click of a button, it's easier than ever to find inspiration from within the design world. But sometimes the sheer amount of noise and competing ideas can overwhelm and a spark is needed from elsewhere.
Stepping away from the places you normally seek inspiration can open a whole world of creative resources and unexpected ideas. Here are seven of the best unexpected sources of inspiration that have fired designer's imaginations and a look at how they can inspire you more than any mood board (opens in new tab).
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This shouldn't be unexpected at all since the natural world has had a huge influence on many forms of design, from biomimicry in product design to skeuomorphic features in UI.
Japan's streamlined Shinkansen bullet trains exist thanks to the fact that their engineer Eiji Nakatsu was a keen birdwatcher. He based the noses of the trains on the shape of kingfishers' beaks to reduce impact when trains enter tunnels, and he added structures to the pantographs to create small vortices mimicking the serrations on owls' feathers in order to reduce noise.
Birds, trees, bugs, mountains and valleys – there's no end to sources of inspiration in the natural world, especially if you look at things close up and see the details in the colours, textures and patterns that many people don't give a second glance. Get up and get out, take a walk and see what nature can tell you.
What do Nike Air trainers have to do with French Structural Expressionism? Everything, it turns out. Nike's vice president of design Tinker Hatfield, himself an architect, took his inspiration for one of the world's most popular sports shoes the landmark art gallery, the Centre Pompidou in Paris.
Hatfield found his inspiration in the colours and exposed systems of Renzo Piano's airy "inside out" architecture, which reveals all the elements that would normally be hidden behind walls, including plumbing, ventilation shafts and the escalator.
And who knows how the Star Wars stormtroopers might look had George Lucas not visited Catalan architect Antonio Gaudí's La Pedrera in Barcelona, with its twisted chimneys. No small number of architects have crossed into UI design attracted by its faster pace of development, and it's not surprising that they bring a keen eye for aesthetics.
So look up and around you. Even if you're not near any famous buildings (opens in new tab), there are likely minor architectural gems nearby that can offer inspiration in their forms, shapes, colours and other details.
And if not, then travel is another great source of inspiration. Fabric and wallpaper company C.W. Stockwell's timeless banana leaf print Martinique was developed by the company's owners and botanical illustrator Albert Stockdale following a trip to the Carribean in 1941.
Sure, they could have found visual inspiration in photographs or books, but what they were really inspired to recreate was not just the imagery of the places they had visited, but the lush exuberance of their experiences there.
Immersing yourself in another geography and culture away from your usual stimuli is a great way to broaden your visual library and also to challenge your assumptions about what works where. Break out of your comfort zone and open your eyes to new possibilities by taking in everything you see, from the fonts used on public transport systems to packaging design in shops, graffiti tags on walls and the shapes of new and exotic fruit in the markets. You never know when it might inspire something completely unrelated.
04. The High Street
The High Street might be in decline but it can still be an immense source of inspiration. We often highly curate our own social experiences and consumption, which can limit our perspective.
A trip to the High Street is a great way to stay in touch with pop culture and current affairs, which can all inspire great design and even architecture – architect Elenberg Fraser was reportedly inspired to design the Premier Tower under construction in Melbourne after seeing Beyonce's curves in a video in a shop. Touch things and see them in context.
Notice what's on the covers of magazines you wouldn't normally read, and on T-shirts you wouldn't wear, and seek out charity shops and flea markets; they can produce inspiring ephemera and props.
The library is another place where you can discover sources of inspiration that you may not normally turn to, and more than could ever be on anyone's watch list.
Decades' worth of books, newspapers, magazines and journals bring access to old typefaces and layouts that can provide great inspiration for novel period designs. Children's books are a great place to turn to for inspiration for illustration and colours, and it can also be good to have a knowledge of the classics.
Gianni Versace turned to mythology when he needed a logo for his new couture line in the late 1970s and found the Medusa as the ultimate symbol of fatal attraction. Many libraries also stock other items such as board games, which can have inspiring layouts, colour schemes and other graphic elements. Time to renew your library card!
It's not only the objects around us that provide inspiration, but also people. The idea for the UX at the heart of Facebook's omnipresent News Feed came about less through thinking about technology and more through observing human social psychology, specifically the innate human love of gossip.
Former Facebook head of brand design Paul Adams has said the News Feed was inspired by how people communicated in small towns in the past and that the company had aimed to create a digital version of the town square in which news would spread just as fast in a large online community as it would in a small town. Being aware of how people behave and interact can inspire compelling design that appeals to users.
Philippe Starck's almost 30-year-old Alessi Juicy Salif remains an icon of industrial design, but where did he find the inspiration for a sculpture-like lemon squeezer that looks like a squid? From eating squid, it turns out. Starck jotted down the idea on a napkin after polishing off a plate of calamari with lemon on holiday on the Italian island of Capraia in 1989.
If you're lacking inspiration, go for something to eat. Whether you go to Mirazur or your local kebab joint, think about the combinations of colours, textures, flavours and sensations to get the creative, as well as digestive, juices going.
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