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Contests, Commercials and Comics: How Graphic Designers Find Their Inspiration

By Mason Lerner July 17th, 2014

Just like any other freelancer, freelance graphic designers have to wear many hats if they want to make a living. In addition to hunting for gigs, managing finances, and, y’know, actually doing the work, freelance graphic designers have to keep up with the ever-changing aesthetics of a media industry that is constantly reinventing itself.

For instance, in the last several years we’ve seen a transition from desktops and laptops to smartphones and tablets. Quick tech changes like that have an immediate impact on how graphic designers work and what their clients expect of them. Any freelancer that doesn’t keep up just isn’t going to make it.

So where do freelance graphic designers look for inspiration in order to keep up with the industry?

Jayme Choi has been a freelance motion graphics designer for clients like BET and NBC Sports for more than 10 years. The L.A.-based freelancer said that every time she turns on the TV, she is researching industry trends.

“That’s the easiest source available for me,” Choi said. “Just turning on the TV and watching commercials is helpful. I pay a lot of attention to a lot of commercials. I especially pay attention to what they’re doing with colors and types.”

In addition to channel surfing, Choi spends a lot of time looking at other designers’ work. She said it’s easy to get lost on websites like Behance.com and Motionographer.com that showcase freelance graphic designers’ portfolios.

“I get inspired by other designers,” she said. “It’s pretty incredible. I can spend hours looking at other designers work. Behance has designers from all over the world. Obviously, designers from Europe, Asia or wherever (outside of the U.S.) will be doing things differently.”

But with only so many hours in the day, it can be hard for freelancers to find time to spend in a rabbit hole filled with other people’s projects. Houston-based freelance graphic designer Melissa Maxwell, who specializes in logos and typography for small- to mid-sized businesses, has found a way to monetize getting.

Maxwell spends a lot of time on contest sites like 99designs.com, which allows graphic designers to compete for assignments. Maxwell said she knows a lot of designers find contest sites to be a waste of time, but she has found them to be both profitable and inspiring. She has won 47 contests during the course of her career, and perhaps just as importantly, she uses the contests to sharpen her skills.

“You can browse all the entries, which allows me to see other designers’ styles and techniques,” she said. ” It’s also a great way to see what companies like and don’t like. There’s a lot of talent out there, and you can really hone your craft by paying attention to it.”

While checking out what everyone else is doing is certainly a sound strategy, Philadelphia-based graphic designer Charlie Layton has an entirely different method of staying ahead of the curve. Instead of getting lost in other designers’ work, he gets lost in his own head.

“It’s really hard to predict what’s going to be coming out next, so I really just pay attention to things that I like, such as music, films, and comic books,” Layton said. “I let the things that I enjoy influence me, and clients gravitate toward me. I don’t have to shape myself into something that people will like.”

Layton is able to use his hobbies and interests for inspiration because he is immensely talented. Of course, he also recognizes that talent alone isn’t enough. It may not be super sexy, but he said that good old-fashioned elbow grease is as important as anything else to keep up with the industry.

Inspiration is 90 percent perspiration, after all.

“You can’t overvalue practice,” he said. “You have to practice a lot, and the way you practice has to be structured.”

“The day you stop practicing is the day you stop getting better,” he added.

And the day you stop getting better is the day you stop getting gigs. Whatever you do to stay competitive, that will always be a constant.

Image by This is the End
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