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Finding offline inspiration

Designers, put away your screen and get inspired by the world around you

Picnic and Hanging Rock poster artwork

I’m on my way home from a brief business trip to Sydney writing in the airport as I await my flight back to Auckland. In the last two days here I’ve gotten more visual inspiration than I’d get from weeks of scrolling through the usual online feeds.

No offense to Dribbble and the like. They are great resources that I get both new clients and inspiration from. But if that’s what you consider your primary source of design inspiration, you’re doing it way wrong.

If you’re a digital designer, you’ve already comes to terms with the fact that your work is very ephemeral. That doesn’t mean your entire process needs to live in that realm. Nature, art, architecture, industrial design, film, travel, and even things as simple as a broadening of your mundane human interactions can all serve as deeper sources of inspiration for your own design work.

Juxtaposition

Inspiration can come in unexpected places. On the flight here I watched two episodes of Picnic at Hanging Rock. I’m not one to generally love airline entertainment but I found the juxtaposition between the Victorian age colonial period subject matter with the decidedly modern cinematography, editing, soundtrack and titles, to be interesting and inspiring.

The fusion and contrast of old and new became an unintentional theme for much of the inspiration on the rest of my trip.

Underside of Sydney Harbour Bridge, by me

Architecture

My home city of Auckland has an unfortunate lack of architectural heritage. The entire country of NZ is a bit too new, remote, and small to have anything near the rich Victorian architectural flavour that Sydney possesses. I took great inspiration from the history of their central city architectural landmarks, cathedrals, the harbour bridge, and The Rocks.

Sometimes all it takes is a small change of perspective. Rather than do the usual tourist pathways I chose to look for unique ways to see these landmarks from other angles, or hunt out those clever intersections between old and new. My greatest moments of joy were appreciating these pieces of architecture and engineering in ways that didn’t look like a postcard.

Sydney’s vintage Museum train station

Back in fashion

I’m always curious to explore a city’s large public transport infrastructure. It can be a surprisingly accurate reflection of the entire story and success of an urban area.

Sydney’s older central city stations are charming. Their vintage signage design is right back in fashion 100 years later. Anyone into typography will appreciate that.

In contrast, some of the new stations from the last few decades are now looking horribly dated. The direct parallel of this to web design trends is not lost on me. Only with digital design the process moves way faster, so it’s even more important to be timeless over trendy.

Bondi to Coogee coastal walk panorama, by me

Nature

I was lucky enough to do the Bondi to Coogee coastal walk on a crystal clear, calm morning. It’s a truly exceptional stretch of urban coastline and an absolute must-do when visiting Sydney.

This, like any experience of nature, allows so many opportunities for visual inspiration and wonder. Symmetry and asymmetry. Balance and colour. Light and angles. The intersection of organic and man-made.

If you’re the type of person who always carries a camera with you, as many designers are, you’ll know that the act of looking through a photographer’s lense can often increase your appreciation of your surroundings. Looking for light, framing shots, and enjoying the details of texture, colour, and contrast all tie in directly with the same design fundamentals that govern your everyday work.

Still shot of Static №12 video exhibit

Technique

At MCA I saw a video art exhibit Static №12 by Daniel Crooks. It was a mesmerising experience — easily my favourite piece on display.

Daniel took a seemingly simple but clever concept and executed it with technical mastery, creating an immersive experience that steals your eyeballs right until the screen goes dark. That moment when your brain finally absorbs what your seeing, and then the complexity of how it’s actually created, is such a gratifying moment of joy and awe. I had a smile across my face the entire time.

It was a strong reminder that a successful projects depends on the right concept all the way to the impeccable technical execution. If you get that entire process right, the results can be extraordinary.

Sydney opera house lit up during #vividsydney

Vivid

I was fortunate enough to catch the last night of #vividsydney. Funnily enough, I found the projection on the opera house one of the weakest pieces — I simply didn’t care for the artwork for all but 10 seconds of it.

But there were plenty of other illuminated delights. The projection on MCA was a far more interesting study in how video can merge with and manipulate architecture. The Samsung exhibit, despite being the only obviously commercial venture, included a very dynamic light/music tunnel.

It all reminded me that light, movement, and sound are such key parts of the human experience. We’ll do well to remember to include all of those facets in our design work.

Dresden modular glasses system

New client, new perspective

I wasn’t in Sydney just for fun. It was on business to meet a new client, and that experience with the client was not outdone by my tourist day in the city.

There is absolutely nothing more valuable to a branding or design project than intimate understanding and appreciation of your client’s business.

I was fortunate enough to get the full treatment. Factory tour, meet the makers, shop tour, chat with founders. I got to experience first hand what goes into making the product, and the people behind that process. What’s the experience of purchasing it in a shop, what the store interiors look like, and how we might be able to emulate some of that online. I learned the history, values, vision, and culture of the company and genuinely enjoyed spending time with all of their people along the way.

I feel prepared better than ever to deliver an exceptional result for this company. You simply cannot get that foundation without first hand experience.

And I feel genuinely inspired by my interactions with their business. Their vision and process are equally heartwarming as they are disruptive. I have an underlying passion for what they are doing that should rub off on the work I produce for them.

What’s your inspiration?

It turns out, I’m so inspired by this new project that I need very little external inspiration. The rest of my Sydney experience was just icing on the cake.

All of the inspiration above was discovered in a single day of casual observation. It doesn’t take much effort. Simply put your attention on it and you’ll be surprised and where you find unexpected inspiration.

Some of my new found inspiration may apply directly to this upcoming project. Some I may stash in back of my head for another time.

Don’t pass up opportunities for new forms of inspiration outside your usual routine. Admittedly, Sydney is a better than average place or it, but no matter where you are you have access to some forms of nature, architecture, and art.

Go out of your way, from time to time, to get out of your online inspiration bubble and go see things that force you to think a little differently. You’ll never know when that experience will serve your design work in the future.

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Benek Lisefski

Hi, I'm Benek Lisefski. Since 2001 I've run my own independent design business. Join me as I unfold 17 years of freelance business knowledge: honest advice and practical tips to help you take your indie career from good to great.

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