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Inspiring Design Inspiring Design

So there you are, hunkered down in your computer fort: a maze of how-to manuals, design magazines, software upgrades, and Web design books. You're up-to-date, but stuck for ideas and looking for an approach to set you apart. What can you do to get inspired?

Turn off your computer.

But don't think of it as diversion. Think about it as part of the process.

Tom Waits once said that a guitar is like a shovel and that your hands always go to the same place on it when you pick it up. Creatively, it's easy to get into a rut. But trying more organic methods to stimulate creativity can truly inspire your computer designs.

Cross Pollination

forkan oil painting
Figure 1: "The Usher," oil and canvas, no computers! Click for detail.

I work as an artist. However, partly because I've lived in a small art market, I found myself doing a lot of different things to stay working, and to allow me time to paint, which is the thing I most like to do. I've worked as an illustrator, designer, cartoonist, computer animator, art director, courtroom artist, and art instructor. I didn't mean to pursue this artistic Jack-of-all-trades approach, but once I began, one of my most surprising realizations was that painting made me a better cartoonist. Cartooning made me a better writer. Writing made me a better painter. And so on.

Cross pollination and hybridization of ideas from various disciplines can loosen up and energize the way you think. Unfortunately, we're taught to keep our ideas separate, that we must choose just one path in order to be successful.

When I was in college, the art department segregated disciplines by housing Visual Communication and Studio Arts on different floors. By this means, the department encouraged a distance and disdain between the disciplines that was accepted by the students.

Distinctions like these keep artists from exploring and mining the various disciplines for ideas and approaches to their work. I now teach Cartooning at Pima College. In this class we talk about drawing, writing, visual storytelling, color and design, film, and art history. However, the number of students with strong computer and Web design skills who had difficulty thinking beyond computer-based design surprised me. These students' linear, highly focused approach limited them because the Web is nonlinear. Its interactive format naturally allows multiple approaches to presenting and accessing information. A nonlinear approach to design—one not hampered by narrow ideas about content or technique—will make it easier for you to break out of the box.

Turning On Creativity

If, you as a designer, in working for the Web can stretch your thinking to include storytelling, or the creation of environments and experiences, rather than two-dimensional representations, you can better realize the possibilities of this nonlinear medium. However, in order to paint your creative canvas with broader conceptual strokes, you'll need more room than you can find on a mouse pad.

This is why getting away from the computer is so important. Here are some ideas to get your creativity going:

  • Draw your ideas out. Remember those old drawing skills? Putting pencil to page may be the easiest way to break out of the tyranny of the cathode tube. Take the complicated machine out of the way and allow your creativity to drive possibilities.
  • Make something for yourself. Try working in a different medium and make some images or objects strictly for yourself. This can keep you attuned to your own interests and strengths and help you approach your work from a more personal, enjoyable perspective.
  • Pay attention to other media. Notice what you respond to when you read, watch films or TV, or look at other artwork. How is a sculpture put together? How does an actor convey an emotion? What are the particular strengths and weaknesses of a given piece of art? Now think about how you can apply these techniques to your Web design work.
  • Read. Many books have been written by and about artists, graphic designers, and industrial and interior designers who have worked with issues both remarkably similar and vastly dissimilar to yours. Information about artistic intentions, marketplace concerns, changing technology, and how other creative people navigate their time can be incredibly inspirational.
  • Daydream. Let your mind wander. If you are feeding your brain nutritious food and asking yourself demanding questions about your craft, you're bound to make strange connections, take unexpected leaps, and find new ways of presenting your ideas.

Get a Bigger Toolbox

forkan illustration sample
Figure 2: Cartooning, illustration, and Photoshop techniques combined. Click for detail.

Exploring your creativity with different tools will bring about fresh ideas. I came to computers at the end of art school, after having explored many of the more organic disciplines. I think having that strong art background made it easier for me to look at the computer as just another vehicle to get me where I was going.

Even though I do my illustration work using a computer, it's a composite of ink drawings and painting, monotypes, text, and Photoshop techniques, with visual approaches gleaned from fine art, photography, comic strips, old clip art, and whatever I might be reading at a given time.

There is no reason why you can't handle a Web design problem from a storyteller's perspective, or that of a painter, filmmaker, or cartoonist. And I don't mean simply the end result. I'm talking about using your brain differently in the process of exploring different methods. As an artist, how about bringing concepts and metaphors from music or sports into your work that can inform your choices and layer your production? Your work will also then become more personal and ultimately more interesting.

Fashion, and Follow the Leader

forkan sample
Figure 3: Hybrid techniques. Click for detail.

Creative approaches to design can help eliminate a follow-the-leader, market-driven mentality. Once a design technique becomes established, many feel as if they have to use that technique in order to be competitive. Until, of course, it falls from favor; then they have to learn something else. Two good examples of this in Web design include splash pages and left-margin navigation schemes. While useful, these techniques became fashion and resulted in many designers using them by default instead of challenging their creativity and coming up with more stimulating work.

Following a flavor-of-the-moment approach is a tiring form of serial monogamy. It's not necessarily good design. It's fashion. If you want a wake-up call about what I'm describing, pick up any design, fashion, or art magazine from five years ago and study it. You'll quickly identify the more creative designs, notice approaches that have fallen from grace, and see all the techniques that had no grace to begin with, but served only as cheap, temporary polish.

Following a path of interest rather than practicing the religion of novelty will lend your work an individuality that will set it apart and allow for more creative freedom. Sometimes it's best to ignore the obvious road that has been laid in front of you and just follow the hood ornament. Granted, you might crash the car, but it might lead to a little trailblazing too.

Some people are very interested in fashion, are happy to ride the wave of the moment, and when that breaks up, look for the next one. I'm not deriding that choice. But being fully aware of your method is the key.

Creativity and Commerce

About five years ago I sought representation from national art agents and submitted my illustration work to them. Their response was that I was "too versatile," and that they wouldn't know how to market me. I had always assumed that an artist should be as versatile as possible and it never occurred to me that versatility could be a detriment.

"Let's say that you're the 'bear guy,'" one agent said. "You're in my stable of illustrators and you're the guy who does bear illustrations. I have a corporate client who needs an illustration of a bear. He looks at your portfolio of bears and knows exactly what he's going to get."

I was horrified! That kind of thinking is great for commerce, great for the middleman, but it's terrible for creativity and for the artist. At that point, I decided I had to be true to my nature and bring to my art those things that I was truly interested in. The Web makes all of that a little easier, because you can skip a skeptical middleman; you're much closer to your potential clients and your potential audience.

So I'm not going to be the guy doing big, spinning 3-D graphics—I shouldn't have to be. I think that there is room for many aesthetics, for different ways of providing information, telling stories, informing and enticing, and yes—even making art on the Web. And there are things you can do that will make it easier for you not to have to play follow-the-leader.

Upgrade Yourself

To be true to yourself and still be marketable, try these ideas:

  • Build a creative team. Find other local and online artists that complement your work, people that you can bring in on certain jobs. The Web offers you easy access to thousands of illustrators and designers and other creative people from various backgrounds, all with Web portfolios. Not only will it expand the feel of your projects, you'll also get everyone's best work, while you'll get to concentrate more on the parts you like.
  • Train and trust your instincts. The more you follow your own muse, the less your work will look like the work of others. You may lose some jobs to more homogenized designers, but the less you try to be an aesthetic chameleon, the stronger and more varied your personal aesthetic sensibilities will be.
  • Dream up the perfect job for yourself. Now work toward it. The Web is still in its infancy, and the possibilities are wide open.

The best job you'll ever have is the one you invent for yourself.

So don't wait until the next time you're hunkered down at your desk hoping for inspiration. Get out of that fort today and go get some. Go make some. Upgrade the user. Upgrade yourself. Making yourself less linear and more organic in your thinking is the best thing you can do to inspire your computer-based designs.

Joe is an illustrator, cartoonist, and painter. You can view a portfolio of his online work at

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