1. Design & Illustration
  2. Inspiration

12 Ways to Tap Into an Endless Well of Creativity


There is no reason to ever run out of ideas. The world, our minds, history, and the Internet offer an infinite realm of artistic exploration. Consider the impact your habits, approach, organization, and internal rhythms have on your finished work. Find out some approaches professional artists use to continuously wave a wand of endless creativity.

1. Mine your Subconscious and Dreams

Your subconscious mind is an unlimited source of creativity. Consider keeping a dream journal beside your bed to capture those surreal fantastic episodes while they are still fresh in your mind. This is a great way to bring some of yourself into your work. It's a sure path to making your artwork unique.

2. Keep a Drawing Journal and Doodle Regularly

Successful artists record their ideas regularly. For visual artists, this means keeping a drawing journal. Though it can double as an idea journal, I tend to write down my ideas as much as I draw them—probably because I can't draw that well. So if I want to capture an idea I have, thoroughly, I need to mix in some writing. I use a hybrid of drawing and writing together to clarify and get the whole idea down. Depending on your skills and interests, your journal will take on a different form.

I remember in design school seeing some students keep journals that were bits of design, ads, or photos they had found, pasted into their notebooks with lots of detailed notes breaking down the process behind each piece or what they found interesting about it.

Moleskine is a popular drawing and writing journal. They have a project called Detour. It features some inspirational artist's journals. There are videos available that show the artists flip though their Moleskine journal pages.

Bearskinrug has sketchbooks on display. They are filled with doodles, cartoons, and all kind of fun work. Visit the sketchbook 1 of Kevin Cornell. He illustrates regularly for A List Apart.

3. Study Artists You Admire

If you like an artist's work, then study their work. Try to find out their process and how they go about their craft. You can also look at their work and try to figure out how to recreate something similar. Set out with the goal that your going to make something similar or in that style and then learn by emulation.

There is nothing wrong with this kind of copying. It's just one practice piece of work and not all the work you'll be outputting in your career. This practice is a formal part of art training in universities. So it's actually encouraged in art and design school. Even master painters emulate previous masters as they were building their craft.

Over at Abduzeedo Fabio has some good posts where he shows artists he admires or draws inspiration from. In the article titled Lighting Effects Inspiration he shows the sources of inspiration behind some of the great tutorials he's been making lately.

4. Look at the Natural World Around You

Nature is an infinite source of inspiration. Try shooting a bird with your camera. Capture it in motion. Draw it. Understand its architecture and anatomy. Consider the rhythm of nature and try to capture the concept in your work. Try to recreate the realism of water in Photoshop with bubbles, drops, splashes, rain, or waterfalls. These are just a few examples to get you thinking in this direction.

5. Look to Other Disciplines

Look to areas outside of graphics for ideas and then bring them back to your work. Good areas to look at are architecture, product design, vehicle design, and many more. For example, looking at modern architecture could inspire a whole series of illustrations for you to work on. Or you may find a detail that you could expand on in the 2009 concept cars that are being showcased. Veerle has a series on outdoor furniture that is inspiring. See the post titled Outdoor Furniture part 3.

6. Look to Art and Design History

You can study whole movements. Consider the work done today. How will it be interpreted a hundred years from now? Philip Meggs has a great book titled A History of Graphic Design that has significantly improved the curriculum across the Graphic Design discipline. It's well worth checking out.

In any visual art history, there are seminal works that make up the principles behind different periods. Everything is classified and gives us a common background to discuss and draw inspiration from. History never sits still as well. The past sits still, but our interpretation of it continues to change. It does so because every individual finds different places to shine a spotlight on. Maybe you'll find inspiration from a lesser-known art or design movement and help make it known through your work. Below are some design history images from Wikipedia.

7. Experiment with Combining Concepts and Styles

Take elements from one style and then combine it with another style. This merges the styles together and creates something new. This is known as fusion. It's popular in all arts. Consider fusion cuisine, where food from different regions or countries are mixed together to create new culinary delights. It's the same kind of concept only we're mixing elements together to create new visual delights. You can follow the same approach with mixing concepts together as well.

8. Shoot Lots of Pictures

Any artist, especially all of us that use Photoshop, will benefit by shooting photographs. It helps tremendously with developing your eye for composition. Its a great way to bring your world around you into your work. Its also a good way to find out what interests you. Consider keeping a digital camera on you all the time. They have gotten so small and powerful that this isn't a burden. That way, you're always seeing things and shooting images—art infused with life, though for some of you that may feel like overkill.

If you really get into photography you might find interest in shooting with certain film or lenses to achieve effects. Polaroids are also a lot of fun to shoot with. Or purchase an old Loma and start participating in the Lomography community.

9. Look at Old Advertisements, Kitche, or Ephemera

Artistic inspiration can really come from anywhere. Sometimes reinterpreting ugly things can place them in a new context that makes them beautiful. Retro styling is commonplace in art and design. The next time you're at a junk sale, look through the old albums, board game covers, or purchase that taxidermy squirrel pen holder. You can also set off on the Web specifically looking for this type of inspiration. Try searching Flickr. User maraid has some Czechoslovakian Matchbox Labels that are a good example.

10. Find Inspiration Online

There is so much on the Web. Anything you can think of you can find. Just do the visual research. If you're inspired by science fiction technology, then keep a folder about it on your desktop. Any time you see something you like copy it into the folder. I have folders for logo design, Web site interface elements, business cards, Photoshop artwork, vector artwork, illustrations, posters, vintage categories, and many more. A good Web site for random visual inspiration is ffffound. It's updated regularly with random user-submitted visual inspiration. Below are some recent finds.

There are thousands of images on my hard drive that make up both whimsical and serious collections. Some are ongoing inspiration for the work that I do on a regular basis. Some are project-based like all the Constructivist images I collected when researching for the tutorial Create a Constructivist Inspired Poster. If you're not collecting visual inspiration, you should get started. Try building collections of visual inspiration. Looking through them helps spark the creative juices.

11. Set Regular Habits

Make creativity a fixture of your daily routine. If you get most of your inspiration from photography, then go for a walk in the morning and shoot cars, people, birds, zoom in on insects, buildings, anything you find interesting.

Consider setting aside even ten minutes a day for sketching. Or keep a doodle pad next to you. Make sure to have some scribbles on it by the end of the day. Got a phone call with a client? Excellent&mdashtime to doodle. Above all else, practice your craft every day. If you're a Web designer, then make sure every workday you're creating a Web site or at least planning a design, reviewing other sites, or practicing your craft.

There are some habits that anyone can benefit from. Scheduling helps tremendously with having a regular, steady creative output. It's really hard to keep up the creativity if you overdo it and don't get enough sleep. Admittedly, I do this a lot though—too much caffeine, too little sleep. Saturday I usually sleep on the beach or lie in bed and snooze with the TV in the background to recover.

Find a rhythm within yourself that gives you the best long-term creative output. Consider your circadian rhythm. We all have an optimal schedule and need to find a balance with our body's natural tendencies. Find out the time of day you think the best during and do your most creative work at that time every day. If you need help finding this kind of balance, check out the blog zen habits. Its a great resource for scheduling, finding balance, and getting things done without overdoing it.

12. Develop Your Creative Process

Create a formula for success. Any design or art project can be broken down into phases. Let's walk through an example process.

Conceptualization is the phase where you brainstorm, mindmap, and come up with the initial ideas for the project. At this stage, you may want to look for inspiration from different sources mentioned above to get going. Often, fusing your ideas with something else can be a good combination.

Then you move onto research. Google Images is useful when searching for reference images. Sketching is the next step. It can involve pencil and paper, though there are many forms of sketching. Consider using mood boards for Web design. Or with Photoshop, jump in and start experimenting with cutting photos and working on composition. You can clean it up later. Find a groove that works for you and that can be repeated on another project.

After drafting, you continue to work on the image or design until its polished. Continually work on improving your process. Pay attention to how much time on average each phase of the process takes. This will help tremendously when you talk with clients and work on setting your project or hourly rates. A good process is a reliable and successful workpath for you to follow time and time again.


Tapping into an endless well of creativity involves finding constant sources of inspiration, continually growing as an artist, developing regular habits, and refining your processes. In the comments, share with us any tips you have on how you tap into creativity continuously.

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