If you are a professional web designer, think about how many times you have been approached by a client that was describing a project to you and included something along the lines of “and we really like the design of this website.” Instantly, before you even think about it, you have some idea of what the finished product is supposed to look like before you even start drafting how you would design the website.
Is this instant injection of inspiration helpful in the design process, or detrimental? On one hand you now understand what kind of design the client really likes, and you can tailor more to their tastes. One the other hand, you are now confined in a finite area in which you can do the fun part of any project: design.
A couple of months ago, I was approached by a friend who wanted to promote his skills on the internet, and was looking for somebody to get a website up and running for him on a very limited budget. Having the skills necessary to complete the small project, I offered up my services to the friend. Right as the contract was signed and we sat down to talk about what he would like for his website, he sent me to the website that he “loved”. He couldn’t say enough about how much he liked the design, and wanted his to look just like that.
We finished our discussion and although it was a number of days later and I wasn’t looking at the website that he “loved”, I started the design process in Photoshop. I couldn’t help but realize that what I had created in those few hours looked exactly like the example he had shown me.
I immediately scratched everything I had worked on and did what I had always done whenever I started a project: drew what my own mind wanted to create on a marker board. Eventually I came up with what I wanted to design and got everything drafted up in Photoshop. As I showed my friend what I had proudly designed, he seemed a little off put, directing me once again to the website with which he held in such high regard.
I explained to him that my job as a designer was to design with my own ideas and that if I wasn’t doing that, I wasn’t having fun. I also explained that having a completely original site is something to be proud of, and that it sets him apart from every other person on the internet.
He eventually understood and the project went on as planned. Nevertheless, having that instant idea of what the client exactly wanted really hindered my creativity, and I am very happy that I caught myself when I did in the design process because not only would his website had looked exactly like somebody else’s, I would have never thought of this problem in the first place.
I do believe there are a number of ways in which design inspiration can be used for the benefit of a project or the designer. One of these benefits is that using inspiration can really lead the direction of how a project and reduce the amount of time that would be spent brainstorming and drawing up a number of ideas and present them to a client.
An idea can be taken from the initial inspiration and expanded upon and changed, and this can lead to less overhead on a project and less time spent on projects so a designer or company can take on more work from clients. This can be especially true when the client is the one doing the inspiring by showing you how they would like their design to be, and when you use this inspiration either liberally, your client is bound to be happy with the finished product.
The decision on conservative or liberal use of inspiration on a project is where the line is drawn for people. As a designer, your primary focus could be the happiness of a client, but as I described in my own real-world example, this can lead to a very limiting process when creating the initial design. I think that it’s fun to go to the marker board and go crazy with different design ideas and see what you or your team think is the best. It can really allow you to pool together your best thoughts and ideas on an easily changed surface. If you don’t have a marker board, then regular paper works just fine; anything to get all of your ideas down before you start a project.
This discussion of client happiness came up when talking with DIYthemes creator Chris Pearson over Twitter a number of weeks ago. Chris had tweeted that “If I were a freelance designer and you wanted a responsive dropdown nav, I’d charge you an additional $2000.” After I talked with him about why he had such a prohibitive price tag for something so common in web design, he stated that he ultimately doesn’t concern himself with what the client thinks… never has and never will.
Chris believes strongly against the use of drop-down navigation in web design, stating that there are a number of usability issues with the technique. Although I don’t have an opinion on the topic, the conversation gave me a really great insight into how the mind of a designer or developer should be. You should never sacrifice your own design process or ideas due to the fact that a client has a website that they would like to copy. Clearly explain to the client your beliefs and if they do not understand, do not work with them.
These are both very extreme examples of inspiration in the design world. I like to think as inspiration in any form as more of a catalyst for creating something truly great and original, instead of an inhibitor, blocking creativity. I browse the web all the time, looking at sites like Creattica, Behance, among others, just looking at some of the great work that designers have managed to create.
While viewing these sites I take notes and draw sketches of what I like about their design, be it UI elements or new CSS3 effects. I try to avoid continually staring at websites or screenshots of a design while I am contracted to work as the design and work of another person can unknowingly seep into my own work and inhibit the creative process of creating a website.
Making notes and sketches can be very helpful, and combining that with your own creativity or that of your team, you can truly make great design that evolve, more than copy, somebody else’s ideas.