Influence vs. Inspiration

~ 03 February 2007 ~

An interested reader emailed last week, and his question was a common one:

Where do you look for inspiration when designing new sites? I am looking to re-design a personal site and I keep getting stuck - mental block and the like.

My reply went as follows:

Are you referring to “inspiration” or “influence”? If “influence”, you can find plenty of it at the many web galleries that exist today. Influence is immediate and free for the taking. If “inspiration”, this is an on-going journey, in which one continually seeks to heighten his or her awareness of design in its many shapes and forms, as well as his or her understanding of the interplay between design and the cultural, social, and economic facets of society. Inspiration is not always immediate, and it has to be earned.

Influence is cheap. Because of that, its utility is short-lived. It may even serve as little more than a platform for duplication.

Inspiration, on the other hand, comes at a price. Its utility is nurtured and harvested over time — months, even years — through personal experiences. I might even argue it’s the catalyst of true creativity.

Which are you seeking?



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1   leroy lyne ~ 05 February 2007

I find inspiration from stacks of magazines that I collect from friends and neighborhors and there are so many web galaries. My blog will be launched in April and I will dedicate a section showing how I “steal”. (pointing the Cam’s article as first reference of course). Purchase a copy of Transcending CSS by Andy Clarke, a large portion of the book is dedicated to finding inspiration.

I find that the “steal key” on the mac can be one of the most wonderful features…You can literary caputre the exact dimensions of a website that you like, open it in photoshop and if you are handy with masking and adjustment layers and blending modes…you can literally create a comp in in quick time.
(every designer ought to spend time MASTERING all three, it make life pretty easy)

Hope this helps.

2   Nathan Borror ~ 05 February 2007

Cubism influenced the teachings of the Bauhaus. Movements like Surrealism and Dada were full of influential artists. While they might not like to admit it, Picaso and Matisse greatly influenced one another.

Influence and inspiration go hand in hand.

3   Blake ~ 05 February 2007

Inspiration isn’t a science. It’s an abstract way of thinking that’s different for everyone. I’m a firm believer in being conscious of the moments of clarity, and remembering what steps you unconsciously took to get there.

I had about five ideas in the shower yesterday morning. Had two in the car on the way to work today. Sometimes there’s simply no rhyme or reason for it, so be prepared.

Personally, I’ve found browsing design annuals from years back (ten+ years rather than last year) helps me bust the box open a bit. Even taking a walk outside of the office for fifteen minutes helps. Look at things. Think about objects.

My favorite designer of all time, Art Chantry, once said, Distraction is the greatest form of inspiration.” Why? Personally I think it’s because when we’re distracted we’re more prone to think outside of the problem.

4   Simon ~ 05 February 2007

I find when I design, I look for inspiration from sites, but in doing this, because I so much like the style and focus of that site, my own becomes tailored too much and in a way becomes almost duplicate.

I have read your article on Good Designers Copy, Great Designers Steal, and this has been a great help. I think the area I need to work on is:

"Picasso implied that great artists don’t get caught stealing because what they appropriate they transform so thoroughly into their own persona, that everyone ends up thinking the great idea was theirs in the first place."

5   Brian Artka ~ 05 February 2007

I will second the motion of checking out Transcending CSS by Andy Clarke. The book is excellent, and the Inspiration section is a kick in the butt for any designer. Andy talks about how he scrap books materials from his life that give him ideas to use in his web designs. I have always gathered certain magazine ads that inspire, or “influence” me, but his scrap book idea never crossed my mind… and my wife is always scrap booking! I will soon be starting my own designer scrap book, is that considered stealing an idea?

Somewhat off topic, Cameron, whenever I hear Miles Davis I immediately think of your session I attended in Dallas last year on good design and great design. That is an inspirational session.

6   Alexander ~ 05 February 2007

I think that you laid it out very well, Cameron. Inspiration and Influence is two very different things. Well said!

7   Shane ~ 05 February 2007

I’m a coder by background, but when it comes to design, my interest is as passionate, but I find it much harder to actually produce anything!

I often ask myself whether what I have produced is overly similar to an influence, whether I have in fact plagiarised something, and I end up binning what I’ve done.

I’ve really got to get over myself - my personal site hasn’t actually got anywhere in the year or so that I registered the domain.

8   Marcello ~ 05 February 2007

If you really think about it, inspiration is kinda cheap, too. Lots of folks (myself included) are inspired from the moment they wake up until they moment they fall asleep (and sometimes even beyond that).

The difficulty is in translating that inspiration into something real and tangible. That’s where the hard work and experience becomes important.

Heck, I’ve written some of the world’s greatest symphonies — in my head! Until I can turn it into something that musicians can play and people can hear, it really doesn’t count for much, does it?

9   Cameron Moll ~ 05 February 2007

Somewhat off topic, Cameron, whenever I hear Miles Davis I immediately think of your session I attended in Dallas last year…

Glad to hear it stuck!

The difficulty is in translating that inspiration into something real and tangible.

Agreed. That’s the “comes at a price” part of it — how to transform the inspiring lines of a beautiful leaf into stimulus for a print project, etc.

10   Justin Kilcher ~ 05 February 2007

“The difficulty is in translating that inspiration into something real and tangible.”

This is exactly what I wanted to touch on in my reply but you got to it before me. Im a walking idea machine and I attribute that to my imagination and countless hours of daydreaming. BUT translating all my inspiration into something real is the hard part.

11   Nathan Borror ~ 05 February 2007

Influence is suggestion. Inspiration is motivation.

12   yani ~ 05 February 2007

Inspiration can come from anywhere, anything

13   Daniel Scrivner ~ 05 February 2007

I think something important to add to this discussion is the fact that in the beginning almost all designers are highly influenced. When you’re just starting out, and have little real experience or design knowledge, it’s almost impossible to come up with solid, truly creative designs on your own.

For me, I started out and learned from the best examples I could find around me. And subsequently, most of my designs (which I thankfully kept to myself) were very close imitations. Now, two years later, I’m finally able to come up with my own unique designs that actually have design merit. = ]

It takes a certain level of experience and knowledge before one can truly transcend mere influence and come up with their own unique concepts through inspiration.

14   Pati @-;-- ~ 06 February 2007

I think it is a good idea to be a part of some kind of community. Until I started participating in -for example- it was very hard to me illustrating in a no-traditional way. I think that every week is easier to me making a new illustration after having seen other’s work. It’s like feeding your creativity.

My husband loves to check CssMania or CssBeauty daily; not for copying, but for taking some ideas to set the structure of his current assignment.

However, the most important think is to be ethical and to respect other’s creations.


p.s. sorry about my terrible English :(

15   Christopher ~ 07 February 2007

I find a lot of influence and inspiration right there >>>>>>>

A lot of the sites in Cameron’s linkage both influence me directly with a technique or effect, or inspire me to think differently.

I think influence comes directly from the same medium, whereas inspiration can come from anything.

I came up with the color scheme for a project I’m currently working on from a towel.

16   Chet ~ 07 February 2007

Your scrolling background image on the right here inspired me! Or shall I say “influenced me” hehe. Duplication is a word I hate to see but it happens in the web-world all to often.

17   Michael Dick ~ 07 February 2007


“Influence is suggestion. Inspiration is motivation.”

That’s a good point, right on the dot as I see it as well.

18   Dennis West ~ 07 February 2007

wow, very concise and very accurate. Thanks Cameron. now I know what’s wrong with me.

19   Brian Hart ~ 07 February 2007

Great stuff as usual Cameron. When I think of inspiration, I constantly refer back to this bit from the motion graphics firm Belief.

This is a great piece that shows how one art form can influence another. you’ll be surprised at what you see. Take a look here.

20   Devon ~ 07 February 2007

Great entry. I’m often influenced by real world surroundings and layouts & designs on TV. Rarely by other websites. Inspiration, I derive from conversations with people who make me think about something from a new angle or from a dull day that makes me force myself to think of something new or see things in a bizarre light.

21   Mike ~ 08 February 2007

It’s very interesting you mention this topic, as I was thinking about this very issue over the weekend. As you mention, there are a bazillion sites out there that are doing bang-up work that you can derive “influence” from. Just type “CSS gallery” into Google and browse away. And it’s very hard to not be influenced, whether subconsciously or not by designs you like. It can also happen very easily happen with other media as well - photography comes to mind.

However, as Cameron mentions, truly finding “inspiration” can be a mental, spiritual and even physical process that comes about from pieces of experience over many years. I’ve even read about musicians who take it to the extreme and won’t listen to other music so that they don’t incorporate other’s styles into their own work. Not sure I believe in that process, as I usually learn a great deal from experiencing as much as I can. To each their own. Great piece Cameron.

22   John Lampard ~ 10 February 2007

It’s interesting to hear that comment (from Mike comment #21) about musos not listening to the music of other artists, since just about every time I hear a band being asked about their “influences” they are happy to name names! Otherwise inspiration, for me, arrives at odd times. Like at 2am. Or from seeing the font on some signage, or a billboard. Or even the background pattern of a credit card!

23   Peter Hyde-Smith ~ 10 February 2007


I find it interesting how few of the comments actually answered your question, influence or inspiration, which are you (we) seeking? I am also interested in the semantics of the question, as it first came across to me as, am I seeking TO influence, rather than am I seeking TO BE influenced; yet the inspiration part was unambiguous.

I, myself, am seeking both. In addition, and to me just as important after two years into coding and constructing a website, am seeking motivation, endurance, and durability.



24   Tuna ~ 11 February 2007

Inspiration, I can find influence anywhere.

You are subconsciously influenced by the world around you all the time.

Inspiration is what you collect on your journey. I collect photos, magazine, books, things that remind me of a place, event, these are my influence also good reference material (but thats another issue).

I find very few young designer have Inspiration, just the result of influence.

25   jdjohnson ~ 13 February 2007

Just finished up a design and then read this article and it summed up the last few hours for me perfectly. Great explanation.

26   Gökhan Karakuş ~ 14 February 2007

In the overall design process it is important to be creative OUTSIDE of the scope of a specific project plan. Architects (i’m from an architecture background) spend a lifetime sketching buildings to both learn about design and improve their graphic skills. As this web design thing is barely 20 years old, the methodology is still developing. I try to do a lot of “sketching” in parallel to actual project work. From these “sketches” i pick and choose certain bits that work for that project.



27   joshua Turner ~ 03 April 2007

Hey Cameron
i had the privilege of hearing you speak at AEA in Beantown 2 weekends ago. One of the things I took away was your new way of organizing your inspiration files digitally. I am a slob and hate paper and stopped doing inspiration filing cabinets because it just got so unwieldy (and got sick of moving it) , so your iPhoto idea intrigued me. I was wondering if you have a method of sorting your files before exporting to book form… ie are you sorting photos according to style, project, feel etc…


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