Be inspired while maintaining focus

Do you read tutorials and look at inspiration galleries? Do you actually implement the things you have learnt? Too many of us spend more time reading about design than actually doing it.

I received this question from Sam in Australia:

I find that I am always reading web design articles, tutorials and reading different blogs, thinking that it is all ‘inspiration’. However I end up just thinking more about my design that I actually design. Any tips?

Although we don’t realise it Sam, I suspect that most of us have this problem. I certainly have in the past.

I think the problem exists for two reasons: we read the wrong stuff, and we don’t remember and apply what we have learnt.

Let me explain what I mean.

Reading the wrong stuff

A big part of the problem is that we spend too much time reading the same kind of stuff. If you are already a fairly competent web designer how much are you going to learn from yet another web design tutorial or by looking through yet another inspiration gallery.  I touched on this in “5 new skills that every web designer needs to know” and it is something I am becoming increasingly convinced of.

Slides from my presentation

I am not suggesting that reading web design blogs and tutorials are wrong. You will still learn stuff. However, you are going to learn considerably more and be more inspired by reading subjects that you know less about.

Start reading about psychology, marketing, or business instead of another post on WordPress plugins or cool stuff you can do with jQuery. It will be harder to see how what you have learnt can be applied to the web, but it will be more inspiring and will have a better ratio of new information to noise.

Remembering and applying what we have learnt

The second problem is that when you do learn stuff,  you fail to implement it when a project comes around. This is because it is not enough to read stuff, you need to also assimilate it and reuse it at the appropriate time.

In order to solve this problem I turn to Getting Things Done by David Allen. He talks about the idea of context and that we need to remember things when we can act on them. He gives an example of a torch with dead batteries. The time when we need to remember we need new batteries is in the shop that sells them. Unfortunately we only remember when we next pick up the torch. Knowledge without context is useless.

Fortunately you can apply the same principles laid out in David Allen’s book to the things you learn.

Take for example an inspirational post that shows you lots of great designs. If you read the post and leave without taking action you will not remember that inspiration the next time you come to do some design. However, if you copy those designs to a program like Littlesnapper and always review Littlesnapper before starting a design, you will be exposed to the inspiration when you can do something with it.

This approach doesn’t just work with imagery. Stephen Anderson is a web designer who has taken a particular interest in user psychology. He has read extensively and learnt loads of things that inform the design process. Of course remembering and applying all he has learnt is another thing.

Stephen Anderson's Mental Notes Cards

In order to help apply these principles to his work he has produced a set of cards containing his key findings. In essence he boiled down everything he had learnt into 52 cards. Then when working on a project he pulls out a random card and uses it as inspiration for the project.

I use a similar principle of boiling down what I have learnt, but I keep the results in Evernote. I know Relly also uses an inspiration library of microcopy that she refers back to regularly.

The trick is to ensure the things you have learnt are recorded in an accessible format and that you refer to it regularly when actually working on projects.