Getting Inspiration from Admiration

Getting Inspiration from Admiration

“This is brilliant! How on earth did they come up with this?”

I’ve lost track of how many time I’ve said something similar to this over the past few years. As it turns out, I’m an extremely jealous person when it comes to design for the internet. I’m jealous in the admiration sense. I follow people whose work inspires higher quality in my own.

Where do you find inspiration for your own projects?  How do you turn a sense of admiration for the work of others into something uniquely yours?

The Role of Role Models

Have a hero or two. The people I’ve come to respect and learn the most from learn transparently. They are the few who aren’t afraid to say “I started one way, but it wasn’t the best way”. Their style makes dramatic changes. Some might call them hypocrites, but is that really the case? Does learning to have better opinions and practice make your previous work a shame? I vote no. A portfolio that shows no improvement over time is stagnant.

The people behind big sites often have lesser known work. People like Ryan Sims and his justwatchthesky tumblr: a side-project which focuses on using two fonts to present song lyrics. It sounds simple, but the results are an inspiration to typography enthusiasts.


“The scope is narrow: An exercise in documenting words in the music I listen to with color and type. The constraints are simple: (1) Only use Georgia (serif) or Helvetica (sans) and (2) try to post as often as possible.”

When in doubt…

How many of the 6 billion people in this world can do this?

As the internet brings communities and professionals closer, we lose sight of some key points. The world is a big place. We interact with brilliant designers and developers on a daily basis, but these people are still not common in our surrounding area. It’s still possible (and impressive) to be one of the best web designers in Northern Ireland. The business is global, but not everyone in the world sees it as clearly.

If that doesn’t work, talk a walk until you see Comic Sans on display. It will be a brief walk. Promise.

Learning from the Best

Thanks to online showcases, there’s no shortage of great design inspiration. You can see how the other half designs, and learn some new skills in the process.

Pattern Tap Collections

The abundance of high quality work is also one of the downsides to inspiration galleries like CSS Remix and Pattern Tap. When browsing the best it’s hard to remember that excellence is not typically the standard. These galleries sift through thousands of submissions to showcase the best. It’s the point!

The situation is much like judging your own intelligence after being in a room filled with geniuses. There’s plenty to learn, but you’ll have a terrible time trying to feel smart afterwards. Don’t judge your own merits based on the work of those better than you – use them to set your goals.

You’re Actually Pretty Well Off

I’m still surprised to find web designers who have never heard of Smashing Magazine or AIGA. These are part of my everyday life, as well as all bloggers and designers who show up in my feeds every morning. This disconnect from the majority of the population creates a unique kind of groupthink about excellence.

The bloggers and designers that make up my feeds are aware of the latest design trends, industry legends, and standards, but there are plenty of folks who have never heard of them. We’ve built a new set of standards. Simply by reading this and other blogs, you’re in a great position to learn new skills. Don’t undervalue the resources you already use.

Steal, Adapt, Repeat

Chances are that you’ve heard Pablo Picasso’s famous quote at some point before:

“Good artists copy, great artists steal”

I’ve encountered designs which absolutely blew me away. I was motivated enough to make a new draft of whatever design I was currently working on. The first result would look strikingly similar to the inspiration, and would somehow look terrible.

After personalizing and building off of principles found in the first, I would eventually reach an entirely new piece. This design would look like an extremely distant cousin to the inspiring one, but tended to look better. The difference was that this design had grown into its skin. This is why those who copy sites verbatim fail. The finished product was never intended for this new purpose – it just seems hollow.

As Picasso says, the act of stealing is actually very different than copying. To steal in the design world is to create something new out of inspiration.

A Blogazine Example in Inspiration

Consider the Jason Santa Maria inspiration to Dustin Curtis. Both have been featured in articles for their “blogazine” style approach to posting. I suspect Dustin took inspiration from Jason’s style. The result is not one, but two brilliant examples in blogazine design.

An Article from Jason Santa Maria
Article from Dustin Curtis

If Dustin took inspiration initially, he was able to transform it into something original under his own talent. That’s what inspiration from admiration comes down to: Creating off the ideas of others. Stealing instead of copying.

Apparently Pablo was onto something.

Additional Reading

Interested in reading more on inspiration in design? Below are a few articles that inspired the post you’re reading now. They’re sure to give more food for thought.

  1. Good Designers Copy, Great Designers Steal
  2. 40 Amazing Female Role Models for Web Designers

Posted Monday, January 11th, 2010 · Back to Top


Add Comment

28 Comments 10 Mentions

  1. Slobodan Kustrimovic Author Editor

    “Good artists copy, great artists steal”
    Picasso actually stole something similar to this quote and adopted it for “artists”. :)


  2. Dennis Andersson Author Editor

    Very interesting post to say the least!

    I personally tend to make some sort of collage or mixtape in my mind with bits and pieces from various artworks, artits and styles to compose my own version.

    Being oriented more towards the print industry I tend to look at charts, tables and mix that with typographic styles found all over the internet.

    Maybe the next post should be about how to get out of the inspiration state and actually get down to business with the information gathered?

    That’s just my two fifty’!


  3. Slobodan Kustrimovic Author Editor

    Oops i meant adapted* :) sorry for double post


  4. mary fran Author Editor

    This is a great post about inspiration! It actually seems to be a popular topic today (Abduzeedo had an article on Music & Inspiration and I wrote one about encouraging originality).

    I think it is very important to understand the difference between inspiration and copying. Although copying something for practice to learn a technique is a useful excercise.


  5. Eric B. Author Editor

    Exactly! I especially like how you mentioned why even the great designers still need to keep on learning new stuff.


  6. Zach Dunn Author Editor


    I’m a believer in the “morgue file” strategy like you’ve outlined. Taking screenshots of inspiring elements (much like Pattern Tap) builds a starting point in no time.

    Thanks for the article suggestion. Depending on the response to this article, I suspect we may have to!


  7. Smashing Share Author Editor

    Excellent article with inspirational stuff. Keep up the good stuff


  8. nashekrashe Author Editor

    Designers also need “external” inspiration for producing smth quality new instead of copying. That is the only thing I dont like about Smashing Magazine — too much inspiration…


  9. Glenn McKeown Author Editor

    Being from Northern Ireland i’m not sure what to make of this point – “It’s still possible (and impressive) to be one of the best web designers in Northern Ireland.”


    • Zach Dunn Author Editor


      The location was arbitrary, but my point was that it’s still possible to be known as a great web designer regionally. We tend to compare ourselves to the top designers of the entire world, but most clients won’t look past their immediate area.


  10. Hunter Satterwhite Author Editor

    Again, you guys rock!


  11. Dimitris Bor Author Editor

    I think it’s not always a good thing to read web design blogs when it comes to inspiration.
    The same articles over and over again, same web 2 rounded glossy stuff, same tutorials, same trends…
    From a technical point yes it’s a good thing. You learn code so it’s okay, but design inspiration?
    Inspiration on how to make the same things maybe, originality i don’t think so…
    Think what happens when thousands of web people reading the same 3-5 blogs. Unconsciously they ‘ll create the same stuff.
    Just look what happend to the web. The same blog style everywhere with a different dress.


  12. Dalesh Kowlesar Author Editor

    Thinking outside the box to come up with great ideas for design is some what difficult. I usually just build on GPL themes :-D

    BTW I ahve never heard of AIGA – OOOOPS! Anyone care to explain?


  13. nashekrashe Author Editor

    Dimitris Bor, that was exactly my point, “inspiration” as a mass product doesnt inpire at all.


  14. Matthew Smith Author Editor

    Glad to see you’re liking Pattern Tap. I can’t wait to get v2 into public hands. Hopefully all by 2nd quarter 2010. It’s been a great first two years and we’ve learned a ton about what users need for their web inspiration needs.


  15. Melody Author Editor

    Nice post, I think inspiration in design is what helps to keep designers still going for their goals. I know I become so inspired with what I can do after being proud of a project I completed…


  16. An @ NinetyPercentAction Author Editor

    Wow. You have no idea how much I related to that post.

    I haven’t designed any websites or layouts yet (still at the headers and banners stage), but I’m aspiring to, and every time I see an amazing design, I’m always in complete awe and admiration. I’ve never been ‘artsy’ and am not in graphic design school, so on one hand it motivates me, on the other, I feel like I shouldn’t even bother trying because there’s just no way I could ever come up with such an awesome design.

    So often we see the end result first and get disheartened because the gulf between where we are now and where this other person is seems impossibly wide. But we forget that all ‘experts’ started out as beginners and took small steps to get to where they are today.


  17. Inside the Webb Author Editor

    Great post dude! I have to agree, the phrase “fake it to you make it” comes to mind reading through your article. Following what others do is a huge part of learning, but then adapting your own techniques and ideas to it and that’s how most people gain their styles


  18. Eko Setiawan Author Editor

    Hi…thanks this article inspiredme, and for this quote : “Good artists copy, great artists steal”
    Keep learning and be creative


  19. Wealth For Teens Author Editor

    Awesome post! I love the quote from picasso :) what a great guy! Keep up the great work boys.


  20. Ocella Lawsuit Author Editor

    Nice article. Drawing ideas from other resources and life experiences is a gradual process most designers rely on for their projects.


  21. ExampleMag Author Editor

    I think it’s important to understand the difference between inspiration and copying. Although copying something for practice to learn a technique and advance a skill is a useful excercise.


  22. jorge Author Editor

    had not actually read this : “Good artists copy, great artists steal”
    but there’s something really cruel. very good article I found interesting…


  23. shyamal Author Editor

    nice inspirational. You rock!


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  25. Autokary Wejherowo Author Editor

    I like this web blog so much, saved to my bookmarks. “To hold a pen is to be at war.” by Francois Marie Arouet Voltaire.


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  27. dziewczyny Author Editor

    I never think about this, but this is good idea ;)



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