Back in 2003, I was invited back to my alma mater, The Cleveland Institute of Art to give a talk hosted by the Industrial Design department. It coincided with a time when image searching on the internet was beginning to be a possibility. I wanted to cover a topic that wasn't formally taught in a class, but is a skill that arguably every designer across all disciplines relies on. I titled the presentation "Source" and it aimed to show some methods for kick starting ideas based on non-related imagery, physical artifacts and personal experiences. For this first column for Core77, I thought it would be a good opportunity to revisit that presentation and provide some updates. We'll focus on imagery here, and I'll share my approach and point out some pitfalls of sourcing images online for inspiration and reference.
Before the internet reduced image searching to a few mouse clicks, accessing and collecting visual references relied on trips to the bookstore, building a personal magazine collection or making copies from library books. It took a time, money and sometimes luck to amass a good reference collection. Instead of folders on a hard drive, you had to maintain physical files of photo clippings and Xeroxes, shelves of books and heavy stacks of magazines.
Putting together inspiration, style or mood boards wasn't as common a task for industrial designers back in the late 90s and early 2000s. There just wasn't the same volume of design coverage and media titles we have today for a start. Also, color copies were expensive and scanners for desktop computers were pretty out of reach. For some of the client projects I was working on in the early days after graduating, I was starting to pull resources from unconventional areas to use as visual ingredients or resources for ideas. This got around some of the technological and cost challenges of the time and became the basis of the "Source" talk.
One of the elements I created for the talk that day was a wall of collected images and items that had nothing immediately connected to product design. I still remember the "I hope you know what you're doing" look on the face of one of the department professors that day as I was assembling the wall. On it were shopping bags, fashion images, rave flyers, street media and material samples ranging from high end contract to industrial supplies. I had hoped to show that if you opened your mind and looked more closely, even the most common, throwaway things might generate a shape, color, texture or even a use idea. The point was to not confine resource or inspiration searching to a focused task involving books, magazines (or these days, the internet) and train your brain to be a sponge all the time.
I talked about some ways to use this stuff. Fashion images were interesting for shapes and silhouettes. There might be some interesting angles or a cutline with a nice curve. Rave flyers were pushing graphic design in all sorts of interesting directions. They used unique color combinations, shape mashups and creative abuses of typography. What would that approach look like applied to a consumer product? Packaging was another opportunity to consider how it might be linked closer to a product than thought of as a disposable element. What sort of value could a cool shopping bag add to the purchase of a product and could it have a longer life? Overall it was about more observing, collecting and asking questions than to try and make connections and form ideas.
Coincidentally at the time this talk originally took place, Volkswagen was running a TV ad for the Beetle called "Squares". It encapsulated a large part of what the 'Source' talk was about, except with a twist. I wrapped up the presentation that day by screening it. The ad remains one of my all time favorites that I suspect was secretly made for designers.
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Fast forwarding to today, image searching online has had an enormous effect on our workflow. Maybe you've recently tab surfed through Chrome or Safari agonizing over finding just the right image to complete a sheet to present to a client or director. How many Pinterest boards do you maintain? How much of your hard drive is crammed full of folders of pics yanked from Google Images?
It's not uncommon these days to begin a project solely creating image boards. For better or worse, it has become a kind of ideation shortcut, hijacked from a behind the scenes working method, to a client deliverable. Rather than spend time and budget concept sketching, image boards offer a faster, picture-menu style method of idea development. In rare cases, like projects with extremely short timelines and tight budgets, this might be appropriate. But to adopt this as a preferred way of developing ideas is cheating on creativity.
There's another issue which is that anyone can do their own image search and collect inspiration and reference images that they "like". This includes clients, project managers, account directors and senior management. They might arrive in an email with a message saying, "Here's some inspiration images I found to help you". If the project was say designing a new high-tech watch, the images could be a collection like this:
These are just a few of the results from a "Cool Tech Watch Design" search I did on Pinterest. How do you react when you get a folder or sheet of images like these? Do you feel like the designing is already done? Should I just copy this stuff? We'll get to that in a bit. If I was working on this project for real, I'd prefer to start with images that I pulled that I thought would get my imagination going. The following sheet is what I came up with, there's bubbles and some curved paper sheets and forms. Nothing relating to watches but there's different shapes, colors and potentially ideas for materials here that could kickstart a number of studies:
The difference between these two collections of images is (in the context of this hypothetical project) the first are references and the second are for inspiration. It might seem like a nit-picky issue, but this is an important difference to understand, particularly if either of these are being shown to a client. The sheet of watches received by email can feel like design direction rather than "inspiration". It is important to ask questions about what these images mean or represent. The person who sent them may not be a designer and this their way of communicating an idea they'd like to see. Maybe the goal is a very clean design and that's how they are expressing that desire. Starting out with a sheet of watch design pictures to use for developing something new doesn't offer a lot of creative room to explore. So it's really critical to talk it over and understand what the underlying design needs are.
That's where the second sheet fits in. It offers imagination ingredients to create new concepts. Your own watch designs based off this sheet could be completely different from mine. These images might be more inspiring to you and less to me. They should be fuel for the imagination and that's why inspiration or mood boards like these might be difficult for people outside of design development to understand.
That's not to say that inspiration and reference boards always have to be separate. Some of my favorites come from a garden design book by Diarmuid Gavin called "Outer Spaces". Gavin hosted "Homefront in the Garden," a spin-off show on the BBC to the interior design redecorating version "Homefront". The book is a compendium of the garden designs done for the series, many of which were controversial. Gavin incorporated sources ranging from sardine cans to hovercrafts to inspire the shapes and features of the gardens.
The book begins each garden design with an inspiration page put together by Richard Evans and Walton Creative. On their own, the pages don't make much sense without seeing the design of the garden they inspired. But the individual images in each do a really good job of communicating multiple elements at a glance. Some show broader ideas about shapes and layout. There's images highlighting unique functions or activities intended for inclusion in the design. And there's another layer for specific details like materials, lighting and plant types. All these images are blended together on one page and work as a kind of visual script for the entire design.
Why is it important to reinforce a difference between inspiration images and reference images? I can't avoid the cliche of a picture is worth a thousand words. Those thousand words have to potential to create a lot of confusion and misunderstanding. Presenting an inspiration board with images of sharks and rainbows for the design of a mobile phone is going to create confusion without some context. Likewise presenting an inspiration board of a bunch of existing mobile phone pictures lacks creativity.
This is the simplest way I've found to understand and explain the difference between these two image categories; inspiration is for the imagination while reference is for knowledge. That at least makes it easier to know how to build a set of images and explain what they mean to someone else, whether they're visually savvy or not. Having an either / or categorizing approach also eliminates any interpretive grey area.
One added piece that can make these boards even more effective is the addition of a short written narrative or some key wording. Rather than a dry description, try telling a story or verbalizing some sensory or emotional attributes. For example, going back to the watch design inspiration board, the story here might be relating to weight. Bubbles and paper represent some of the lightest physical structures we have on Earth. The design of this new concept watch aims to offer a sensation of weightlessness to the wearer. Just as time is something we physically can't see or feel, the design of this watch aims to present timekeeping in its most blurred physical form.
Will there be a point when that pile of printed inspiration and reference images on your desk or mess of jpegs on your desktop diminishes? Probably not too soon. Maybe they'll be some kind of AI system that comes along that can source images from a few words or a VR environment that works like a hybrid library / gallery to evolve todays 2d image boards. The important part is that they remain an element of a design workflow and not a replacement for it. As designers it is still our job to do the hard work problem solving and bring beauty to the products, vehicles, architecture or interfaces we design. There's just no shortcut to those solutions with a Google Images or Pinterest search alone.