With originality as our holy grail, designers often forgo searching for inspiration. Yet looking outwards is absolutely essential.
As designers, we’re paid for our ideas. We build brands from the ground up and draw out entire platforms. We imagine, dream and invent, not just because it’s our career, but because it’s our passion.
Like any other professional, it’s hard to admit when you’ve reached the limits of your capabilities, or when you’ve hit a wall and are unable to use your creativity to solve a problem. Sometimes it can make you feel like a fraud or that you’re bad at your job. We want to feel competent and creative. Encountering a roadblock can make us get defensive about our skills and retreat inward when, in fact, we should be opening up and reaching outward for solutions to our problems.
If we can admit that we can look to others for inspiration, we can elevate ourselves as creatives. We don’t have to be the end-all-be-all of original thinking. Where our ideas come from is irrelevant as long as we’re doing our job well.
Stop reinventing the wheel
It’s common to feel like you need to have entirely original ideas. Working in a creative field is largely subjective, and our ideas are what we’re getting paid for, so it’s reasonable to feel that your work needs to be completely new. However, this mindset is actually hurting your designs and your development as a designer.
Drawing inspiration from others’ work isn’t “cheating”; designers do it all of the time.
Even big companies will mimic styles or UI elements. For example, Google’s Material Design FAB (floating action button) made its way into many popular iOS apps, despite not being in the Apple guidelines. Instagram, too, has “borrowed” Snapchat’s stories and redesigned them in a way that made more sense for their platform.
Using other designs as a springboard is a great way to start working on a feature with a sense of what works and how it can be implemented. It also saves you from trying to do something completely new for UI elements that are already common and don’t need to be reimagined.
For example, if you are implementing a photo gallery upload in your app. Trying to make something completely different than what the native modal looks like–or messengers and social media apps use–will prove not only difficult, but also counterproductive.
Going out of your way to use different elements from the ones they’re using will likely lead to an awkward implementation that isn’t user-friendly. Instead, looking to those existing features will allow you to see which parts of them would work well for your specific needs and how to approach your design with those observations in mind.
Learn to look at different designs and pick up small parts that you feel would make sense for your project, whether it’s layout concepts, sizing, or navigation.
Look for inspiration
Where to go
Bookmarking a list of go-to places for design inspiration is a boon for any designer, but it’s important to know what to look for and how to use them. It’s a good idea to look at current design trends regularly, even when you’re not working on a specific feature. There are also many talented designers out there whom you can follow for general research and aesthetic inspiration.
When looking for ideas pertaining to a new feature, there are a lot of different places to draw ideas from, but they largely break into three categories.
Well-known websites like Dribbble and Behance (Adobe’s designer network) act as both portfolios and social networks for designers. Using design sites is a great way to challenge yourself to improve your skills and research how others have imagined a feature you’re working on, and to see the feedback they received.
An important caveat when browsing these designs is that they’re usually UI-centric and not as UX-focused. This doesn’t always matter, but, occasionally, you’ll see stunning re-imaginings of common features that are lacking functionality or have confusing UX upon closer inspection.
Even when designs look very impressive or are created by well-respected designers, you should still look for where they can be improved. Your opinions and insights always matter, no matter whose design you’re looking at.
Relevant apps and websites:
When you’ve been assigned a feature that’s been done in other platforms, the first thing you should do is look at how they approached the design. This will set the standard for what’s already out there and give you ideas on how a similar take might work on your platform. Sometimes, very different products have overlapping features.
For example, a TV-streaming app and an online course library might each have a “my list” feature that allows you to save videos to watch later, but the nature of the platform will dictate how the feature is implemented. A list of TV shows is much lower commitment than a list of courses, so a TV-streaming platform can present you with shows you’ve saved but aren’t currently watching on your homepage.
Courses, on the other hand, are long and require your full attention. Seeing a long list of those every time you open the page might be overwhelming. The context of a platform makes a big difference in implementation, and, sometimes, that’s what’s going to drive a concept forward.
No one person can do everything, and no one is expected to. Don’t hold yourself up to imaginary standards; celebrate your abilities from time to time.
It’s likely that several of your features will overlap with your competitors since you have similar platforms. While it’s difficult to try to build something differently than what you’re already seeing, it’s a great design challenge and an opportunity to make something better than what your competitors have. They’ve set the bar; now it’s your turn to raise it.
If you’re not the only one in your space, you may find yourself implementing a feature already built by one or more competitors. Obviously, you should never copy someone else’s designs, but when you’re implementing features already built by competitors, it’s important that there are fundamental distinctions.
Ask yourself the following questions:
How does this feature specifically fit within your product and cater to your user base? This will determine what sets your use of the feature apart.
What steps can you cut out?
Where can the layout change?
These questions can sometimes allow you to figure out how to articulate your core value proposition in contrast to your competitors.
Do's and Don’ts
Make sure you’re using your time productively when drawing inspiration from others’ designs. The best time to do this is before you’ve started any design work on the feature and are at a preliminary doodling phase. If you only start looking for inspiration after you’re deep into the design, you might not be as receptive to changes that could improve it or need to undo work you’ve already done.
Avoid the classic pitfalls by following these rules:
Do: Look for elements you can incorporate. Learn to look at different designs and pick up small parts that you feel would make sense for your project, whether it’s layout concepts, sizing, or navigation.
Don’t: Copy something as-is. You should always rework things to make them your own and use ideas rather than exact designs.
Do: Rethink your approach. Come at the process with an open mind and be willing to let go of ideas you had before, especially if they weren’t working for you.
Don’t: Obsess over a specific design that’s impractical due to your abilities or implementation times. Always know your weaknesses and play to your strengths. If a design is heavy on illustration and that’s not your forte, it’s best you move on to something that will work better with your set of skills.
Do: Get an overall sense of what you like or don’t like about a design and think: How can I approach this differently? We all have different design sensibilities, and you can bring something to the table that no one else can.
Don’t: Look over polished work and feel deflated or intimidated. If you see something that you like but don’t think you’re able to reproduce it, it might not be for you. Think about other ways to achieve a similar result. If you think it’s something you can learn, you can use it as an opportunity to acquire a new skill. Look up the specific method for tutorials or take an online class. If you talk to your employer (and there’s available time), they’ll likely encourage this and allow you to do it on company time. After all, your development benefits them, too.
Some of the designers we stack ourselves up against have been working for much longer than us and have different tools available at their disposal. No one person can do everything, and no one is expected to. Don’t hold yourself up to imaginary standards; celebrate your abilities from time to time.
How drawing inspiration makes you a better designer
Using existing designs as prompts keeps you from putting unnecessary stress on yourself and will allow you to get through your tasks more efficiently. At the end of the day, the quality of your output is what matters most, and whether or not you borrowed ideas from different designers or products is irrelevant.
Looking at other creatives’ work, you might find there’s an aesthetic or particular UI element type that you didn’t realize you liked or you could implement. Being exposed to more content allows you to understand yourself better as a designer. You might also see alternatives to things you were doing that make more sense. and incorporate them into your own design language.
We’re best at our jobs when we’re learning and evolving, and we should look to do that whenever and wherever we can. Watching tutorials, taking classes, and looking at others’ work challenges us to be better and learn more about ourselves.
There’s a certain amount of defensiveness about other people viewing our work and the quality and originality we want to have as designers. When developers code something, you can judge it relatively objectively by how well it performs the task at hand and by bugs found.
As designers, our work is much more subjective and complicated. Often, we don’t get feedback on features from users until months after we’ve designed them and moved on. We want to feel a sense of pride in our work - which we should - but we also shouldn’t let that pride and defensiveness hold us back. Our job is to make the best products possible, and we should use any and all tools we have at our disposal for that purpose.
It may be hard to let go of that defensiveness and accept that we could learn from looking outward. Yet drawing inspiration from others’ designs is a standard practice that most designers use. For the good of your company, but mainly for your own good as a designer, open up and see what’s out there.
Get inspired and inspire others
While it’s helpful to draw inspiration, it’s also important to give back. Become an active member of design communities to learn from others and to show your work, too. People will often seek out new designs to check out, so even if you don’t have any followers at first, your work can still be seen. Designers are usually respectful and give insightful and encouraging feedback.
Uploading your work allows you to get notes on where things are working and where they can be improved. Challenging yourself to give others (constructive) feedback can also sharpen your ability to look at your own designs and figure out where you can elevate elements to make it better. Feeling like you’re part of a larger design community and that you can also contribute to others’ processes can help make drawing inspiration from community members feel more natural and reciprocal.
We should always strive to be the best designers we can be. Being a designer is no different than any other job, in that you’re never going to know everything there is to know and there will always be room for growth and improvement. Instead of feeling prideful of our skills and weary of the knowledge that we are still lacking, we should embrace it as an opportunity. What makes a good UI/UX designer isn’t that they have reached their full potential and have no more room to grow; it’s that they continue to learn and better themselves and their products.
About the Author: Coren is an Israeli-born freelance UI/UX designer and writer based in New York. He started working in tech at 19 and has designed products used by millions of users. He is always learning more about UI design trends and is an active member of several online design communities. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀