When I was at college (drinking beer and making some effort at that degree in design) all the professors told me the same thing : keep a reference book.
Yes, the reference book. A book of work that others had done that would someday inspire and inform future work. Or, as I called it, the copycat folder.
Don’t get me wrong, I love to be inspired, and when I see something that’s really cool or innovative, I will certainly swipe it for future use, but to maintain a book of crutches never made sense to me.
It does to some… I know designers and creative directors who have made a career of aping the latest thing. I’ve probly got some tooth damage from all the gritting done when I used to go to design reviews and heard “Did you guys all see this thing that VW did….”
Now, it’s doubtful these people go home and flog themselves relentlessly while chanting “mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maximus culpa…” They seem to be fine with what they’ve done, and that’s cool… it’s never lonely in the middle and they all seem happy enough.
But not me. And to some degree, it’s a big ‘fuck you’ to all the hacks I see in the world, but I do the opposite of a reference book. I keep IdeaBooks.
Everything I’ve ever done is stored somewhere in one of these books (PDFs really). I’ve got IdeaBooks for pretty much every topic out there. My favorite is the “Cute Orphan” book, all my favorite ideas that never got used.
Some ideas are tiny (a tidy ‘what do you want to do’ widget that turns Navigation nouns into user verbs) some are bizarre (The tiny site/control panel that acts as a guide to related topics… Modernista, you owe me $20 for that one) and some are giant sprawling concepts for sites that may never exist (I name these things like “Fluid Louis” “Uncle Nodey” and “Crusty Bob”).
It’s really less the output of the books and more the effort taken to take a small idea and see if you can play it out a bit. Tinker with something that’s uniquely yours, not a copy of something you just saw. Explain it and put some basic requirements together, see if it’s a real idea, or just a cheap parlor trick.
I think everyone should give it a try, I’m guessing you’d be surprised how many cute orphans you’ve left untended.