For Designers, a Little Inspiration Goes a Long Way

Designers' best ideas often come from projects they're not used to working on. (Flickr photo from Brockhaus and Efron Encyclopedic Dictionary / Mary Margret)

(Photo by Brockhaus and Efron Encyclopedic Dictionary and Mary Margret / Flickr)

Sometimes, it’s the little things that power a web designer to produce a remarkable project.

For Dan Mall, all it took was a little inspiration.

For other designers, a unique project stems from creative freedom, or even a great typeface. But, while their methods differ, these designers are unified by a desire to create original and interesting projects, often done through firms they have started themselves.

One of Mall’s most interesting projects took place about two years ago with a nonprofit, Reading is Fundamental. When Mall walked into his meeting with the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, he had a pretty good feeling the project had the potential to become one of a kind.

Free trial on Treehouse: Do you want to improve your mobile and desktop design skills? Click here to try a free 14-day trial on Treehouse.

Mall, a design director who started SuperFriendly, a company that matches designers’ expertise with the right projects, had no idea his first meeting with Reading is Fundamental, which ensures all kids have access to books, would set him on a new path in his design process.

The motivational meeting did just that.

That meeting two years ago kicked off with a hug from the nonprofit’s vice president of marketing and communications. The Reading is Fundamental group was fun, creative and open to the suggestions made by Mall and his team — which left him feeling invigorated and innovative.

His team left that day with one mission in mind: to design a great website for Reading is Fundamental, which gave Mall some great feedback to kick-start the project.

“They were using all of these great explanatory words, like ‘electric,’ ‘heart’ and ‘bubbles’,” Mall says. “So, the next day I opened Photoshop and did something I’ve never done before.”

Energizing Meeting Leads to New Design Approach

Mall began putting all of his different ideas for the new website into one Photoshop collage, which he now calls an “element collage” and uses on all of his projects. He found the element collage helped gather detailed feedback from the Reading is Fundamental team. This empowered Mall and his team to present a site beyond what the nonprofit imagined.

A portion of Mall's "element collage" for the nonprofit Reading is Fundamental project. (Image courtesy of Dan Mall.)

A portion of Mall’s “element collage” for the Reading is Fundamental project. Click to see a larger size. (Image courtesy of Dan Mall)

Mall’s element collage is an abstract way to document design ideas, which he describes as an assembly of pieces that don’t have a specific logic or order, but help capture all of his thoughts on a project as he gets them. A collage also provides as much visual imagery as possible from the get-go, serving as a point of reference during conversations between Mall and clients.

“Creating element collages started with the Reading is Fundamental project,” Mall says. “Now I use it on every project I get.”

And, sometimes it’s the people Mall collaborates with who make a project unique. About a year ago, Mall worked on a project for a large technology company, collaborating with Jamie Kosoy, the founder of Arbitrary, a digital agency.

For that project, Kosoy created about 30 prototypes, each designed to solve one specific problem. The project’s goal was to have the browser appear as if it were tilted in 3D space. Mall sketched the idea, and Kosoy began to create prototypes to address problems designing the site.

“Each prototype would ask one question: Can I do this part with a div? Can I make the design rotate? What if I add a little texture here?” Mall says. “[Kosoy] was solving really small problems — each took an hour or two. But, when we started to put it all together, he had already solved what the client wanted through his prototypes.”

Unique is exactly what most clients seek. According to marketing company Neolane, 69 percent of North American marketers say dynamic, personalized content is important for their website; only 5 percent saying it’s of low importance.

Unique Projects Mean Getting Creative — and Learning New Skills

For designer Brian Casel, noteworthy projects happen when designers create it from the ground up. And a project that forces him to rely on all of the skills he’s built up over his years as a designer has a serious potential to succeed.

“When I’m doing a project for myself rather than clients, I get to ask the question: ‘What can I dream up next?'” Casel says.

For Casel, unique means challenging, and it pushes him to use every skill he’s honed as a designer — and some he hadn’t yet discovered.

“With these types of projects, I’m able to use all of the skills I’ve built up over the years to create products that I have full control over,” Casel says.

A screenshot of Brian Casel's Restaurant Engine site. (Image courtesy of Brian Casel)

A screenshot of Casel’s Restaurant Engine site. Click for a larger size. (Image courtesy of Brian Casel)

The first was Restaurant Engine, a startup Casel created that builds websites for restaurants. Restaurant Engine is SaaS-based and built entirely on WordPress — unique for the fact that there aren’t many sites like that around, he says.

Strange as it may seem, Casel says the real challenge behind his project didn’t have anything to do with design.

“I had to learn a lot about marketing and sales,” Casel says. “When you own projects, writing copy becomes part of that transition.”

A screenshot of Casel's "Design for Conversions" landing page. (Image courtesy of Brian Casel.)

A screenshot of Casel’s “Design for Conversions” landing page. Click for a larger size. (Image courtesy of Brian Casel)

Another Casel original involved his book, “Design for Conversions,” another series of firsts for him. Aside from writing his own book, he designed and formatted an eBook and created the landing page. It took calling upon all of his design skills, as well as newly learned ones such as copywriting.

His advice for designers hoping to create a project that moves away from a mainstream template? It’s simple — start small.

“Try small things, make a bunch of mistakes, learn from them, and then apply those to your next project,” he says.

In some cases, all a designer needs to concoct a new project is a great typeface. Put a new type or two in front of Brian Hoff, founder and creative director of Brian Hoff Design Inc., and his creative juices will start flowing.

“Different types of [leading] and styles wave into inspiration for me,” Hoff says. “Colors and styles — that paves the way nicely and gets me excited.”

One of Hoff’s standout projects was a design he created for AAA, which targeted roadside awareness. The unique part for Hoff was the opportunity to work with another design team and collaborate on the project.

A snapshot of the AAA project worked on by Brian Hoff. (Image courtesy of Brian Hoff.)

A snapshot of the AAA project worked on by Hoff. (Image courtesy of Brian Hoff)

Another project, which hasn’t yet launched, forced Hoff to focus on redesign strategies. His goal? Taking what was already there and simplifying it, without losing the website’s fundamentals.

Unique projects have a tendency to push a designer. But that’s the part Hoff loves.

“I really enjoy the beginning of a project,” he says. “It’s scary and liberating at the same time, and I actually like that. That first draft you send to a client — that’s nerve-racking. But, it also gives you the chance to bring something new to the table.”

Free Workshops

Watch one of our expert, full-length teaching videos. Choose from HTML, CSS or WordPress.

Start Learning

Comments

2 comments on “For Designers, a Little Inspiration Goes a Long Way

  1. I like to use Trello for pulling together design inspiration into a board – you can drag and drop screenshots and images onto trello cards, really useful and very visual way to make an inspiration space.