Nodes of design inspiration

~ 26 April 2004 ~

After hours of mouse movement, sweat, and loss of blood while working on a client layout last week, I painfully discovered a link between two important design concepts: 1) design inspiration and 2) design nodes. Although recovering in a hospital bed somewhere in Northern Utah, I’ll attempt to explain this link as coherently as I can.

For those of you with only minutes to spare, allow the Authentic Boredom Node ’O Matic™ to present a brief summary of the information that follows:


Design Inspiration

For the sake of not repeating information contained in this article, suffice it to say I recommend designers allow themselves to be inspired by other creations as often as necessary. Although controversial since the day it was first published, the article isn’t an advocate for plagiarism (copying the outcome) but rather for emulation (copying the inspiration).

Design Nodes

A node is typically defined as point of intersection (in a non-medical setting, might I add). Varying examples include the point at which two orbits cross, or the point at which a computer connects to a network. And so on.

In a design sense, I use the term ‘node’ to loosely define intersecting points in a layout. The logo inside the masthead. The masthead resting above two columns. The placement of phone and web address just beneath body copy in a magazine ad. And the like.

Nodes of Inspiration

By combining the concept of design inspiration with that of design nodes, we discover something I call “nodes of inspiration” or “node of inspiration” for short (*snicker). Simply put, these are points of intersection in a layout in which a designer uses another source as reference for inspiration.

I’ve been doing this for quite some time now—probably years—but didn’t notice it until last week, after stepping back from a layout to see where some of the inspiration originated from. Shown in the Node ’O Matic diagram above, I count five sources that helped produce a refined layout:,,,, and (You may view a full-size screenshot of the layout, but note that elements have been changed or blurred to protect the identity of the client.)

In the end, each of the inspired elements were reproduced with Authentic Boredom flavor and are unique in their own right. Further, by utilizing nodes of inspiration in a commercial setting such as this, overall thinking time is reduced, saving both time and money without harm to the client.

The Floor is Now Yours

So there you have it. I expect this article to be as controversial as the one that first inspired it. Feedback? Rebuttal? The floor is now yours.


Although I recommend using nodes of inspiration as often as needed, there are times to be inspired and there are times to be original. The Node ’O Matic diagram, for example, was created without any nodes of inspiration whatsoever. You’ll need to use wise judgement as to when nodes of inspiration should be used and when they should not.


Veer Veer: Visual Elements for Creatives.
Stock photography, type, and killer tees. Genuinely recommended by Authentic Boredom.

1   Jon Hicks ~ 26 April 2004 at 08:17 AM

Controversy? Doesn’t everyone do this? I do. Your original article said it all.

Besides, is there such a thing as a really original idea anymore?

2   Tomas ~ 26 April 2004 at 08:30 AM

I applaud you. That’s an excellent example of stealing nodes of inspiration (I usually call them “elements”), as opposed to imitating a design as a whole; your XYZ Company design is unique despite of “stealing” from other designs. I’ll be sure to return to that design of yours later for some stealing of my own, I particularly liked the logo treatment and the barely noticable faded pattern in the top.

3   Ryan Brill ~ 26 April 2004 at 08:57 AM

I agree with Jon, there’s very little “true originality” in web design - and maybe there shouldn’t be. Users come to expect web sites to look a certain way, so if you were to make a wildly original site, you’d better do some user testing.

Whenever I’m working on a mockup, I usually will choose a few sites that have the general feel that I am trying to achieve, dissect them, and use various implementations of their elements (nodes) in my own design. Of course, it is important to remember to only copy the inspiration behind the design, and not take it too far. How far is “too far” will depend who you ask. ;)

4   Michael S. ~ 26 April 2004 at 09:37 AM

Your first article doesn’t need a follow-up. Well maybe for some. Anywho, It is only original if nobody can remember or see the “nodes” one has copied. I see design as a constant morphing of nodes.

I can just see the beginning of time when caveman #1 kills caveman #2 because he copied his cavewall drawing by using the color red. But he did not he copied a node.

I love blogs. :)

5   Ryan Sims ~ 26 April 2004 at 07:45 PM

Wow. I’m glad I served as a bit of inspiration, Cameron. This is a concept I believe in whole-heartedly. Nodes of design inspiration. I like it.

6   Dan August ~ 27 April 2004 at 07:25 AM

I’m surprised how little controversy this has sparked. Where are all “the originals”?

I too believe in nodes of inspiration. It covers my way of working and being inspired very exactly.

And I don’t feel bad about it. After all, we all fish in the same pond.

7   Didier Hilhorst ~ 27 April 2004 at 04:26 PM

This is one of those topics that no one talks about but everyone does. Classic. Just classic. Picasso said it best and that was long before web design became an industry. We are all inspired directly or indirectly by something or someone. I’m no exception.

The important thing to keep in mind is to develop a unique final product. As the nodes of inspiration are included in the design somethign unique is created. Copying all the different elements wholesale would not have worked. Does this mean the designer’s task is limited to mix and match. No.

Every designer worth his salt will agree with the statements you make and if they don’t they are in serious denial. Artwork is seldom original. Besides, what is original? Would I have detected that you used different sources of inspiration for this project? Probably not. To me it’s original. Period.

8   Cameron Moll ~ 27 April 2004 at 10:31 PM

Related, interestingly enough.

9   Heath Weaver ~ 28 April 2004 at 03:46 AM

I think, in another way, anyone who has been educated at all in the fine arts does a lot of stealing.

I don’t know any programs that don’t start by teaching a basic understanding of techniques and designs others have developed, whether it is trying to throw paint like pollock or sculpt like mickie, it is copying, but we refer to it as ‘mastering’ the technique.

Also, there is a level above that artist usually move into and produce work that others will go on to try and steal, um I mean master.

It is about learning and growing, just because you are a professional doesn’t mean you stop learning but that you are more focused on it, because you have to eat.

Heath Weaver ( - the crappiest blog ever)

-Van Gogh was no sell-out. Mostly because no one would buy his work.

10   Luke ~ 28 April 2004 at 11:51 AM

It’s interesting to think of this topic in parallel to the debate about sampling in music.

At it’s worst, sample-based music rips off large chunks of an old song, and gets away with it because our cultural memory is pretty short (think Puff Daddy here).

At it’s best, the musician synthesizes something completely new from a variety of sources that takes on it’s own life (think DJ Shadow).

Same with design. The art is in how skillfully and thoroughly you blend the sources.

11   Jason ~ 28 April 2004 at 02:52 PM

I think that — in music, film, design, writing, gameplanning for sports… it’s the mixing of these unique nodes, along with somehow mixing in your own essential creative nature in an authentic way, that somehow makes it a brilliant tribute, full of inspiration, rather them some hackneyed duplicate that insults the original.

I can’t say exactly what it is that makes the difference there. It’s like obscenity, you can’t really define it, but you know it when you see it… .

Your example site is a tribute, and wholly original in it’s final form. There’s a Crest commercial playing these days, however, that is just a cheap knock-off of Sex in the City.

12   Greg ~ 29 April 2004 at 08:11 AM

Uh, what’s with the hospital line? Are you moonlighting as a candy stripe or just suffering from a casual dose of Ebola?

13   Cameron Moll ~ 29 April 2004 at 09:30 AM


14   Mike ~ 30 April 2004 at 05:52 PM

We’re in the habit of thinking of artists as originators, people who in some way generate and emit capital-A Art. As a graphic designer and musician, I’m fairly certain this viewpoint is bogus. I think of myself not as an emitter, but a recombinator and I view other artists in the same way.

I guess the question is “Where is the line between theft and inspiration?” My answer is: there is none. All inspiration is intellectual theft. Its a wave and a particle at the same time, depending on how you choose to view it. When its viewed as intellectual theft, the concern is that the creator is being deprived of something of value, whether money or the social currency of recognition. When someone uses your ideas without crediting you and with only token recombination, its an implicit misrepresentation of their degree of skill. This is important for things like social prestige, being paid for your work, finding a job, etc.

Now, some designers try to claim:

“When someone misrepresents my skills as theirs, its harmful to me because the thief is taking potential jobs away from me.”

This is unlikely, for a couple of reasons. First, its very rare that the alleged thief has the attention to detail to successfully recreate your work, and if they do, they are probably as qualified for the job as you anyway. Secondly, there is a market for designer/thieves who make carbon copies of other people’s work with little-to-no recombination. Are you competing in that market for those (low-paying) jobs? Probably not. In the long-term, designer/thieves are not likely to impact your bottom line, which is why I believe that this excuse is really a cover used to justify another fear - loss of social prestige. For those people, I have these words of advice: Suck it up. Maybe you enjoyed the awe that you felt from people because you were an “artiste”, but you never deserved it, because everybody steals.

Switching gears to Inspiration. Ignoring all personal gains that you get from your work, the success of an idea lies in its longevity. Throughout history, there have been a number of really neat ideas that became ubiquitous: cellular respiration, sexual reproduction, digital watches, etc. An idea’s success is in its ability to be replicated, reproduced, recombined and refined by future generations, just as you perform those operations on existing ideas.

One of the main reasons that I am drawn to create art and music is to contribute. To me, nothing is more tragic than to live your life (as so many do) as a mere footnote in history, with no influence greater than a population statistic

15   Tim ~ 04 May 2004 at 07:52 AM

People who ‘steal’..regardless of what spin they put on it are not designers…you’re simply desktop publishers or artworkers.

And if you respond by giving me examples of great artists or designers that have stolen, or work that is ‘derivative’, then your missing the point and you are still desktop publishers or artworkers.

And I also don’t care to explain myself further to artworkers or desktop publishers…so if you don’t understand what I mean, then go to design school.

16   Foofy ~ 09 May 2004 at 12:07 PM

Design is assembling from known elements to create answers to problems. There really aren’t any truly “original” elements, even the most basic of lineart is still the assembly of line and form.

The original aspect comes from how these elements are assembled. It’s amazing what logo designers can do with the two colors and a bunch of lines and shapes.

Design is application of a bunch of elements into something new and fresh that solves and problems, and sometimes that problem is “pretty” (so style is an important part of design). No amount of Design School Elitism can hide the fact that you’re just like the rest of us: assembling something new from a known set of bases.

Let’s just be happy with our creative assembling. That’s why I like to think of myself as a builder, not a creator.

17   Scoffer ~ 12 May 2004 at 02:00 PM

Actually, there is such a thing as original design, but it’s much easier for designers to cheat, especially as knock-offs and uniformity are widely accepted. Cheating, piracy, and Anti-trust activity have reached such a level that straight shooters can’t compete.

Also, digital media makes it harder for design to be original, because the trace of the artist’s physicality is less evident than in legacy media. If you don’t draw a logo by hand, but create it by manipulating BCPs, it will have less of your “signature”.

18   scoffer ~ 12 May 2004 at 02:18 PM

If design is the arrangement of elements, you can make it more original by using original elements. Don’t use stock images and fonts that came with your software apps, that everyone else has. Commission original photos and illustrations, fonts even, or at least unusual fonts. Or do it yourself.

If you really want to be original, design your own tools.

19   Mark ~ 15 May 2004 at 11:56 AM

Anything you do,
let it come from you,
then it will be new.

Give us more to see.

(I stole that line from Stephen Sondheim’s
‘Sunday in the Park with George’)

Thanks for a great designer’s resource, Cameron!


Authentic Boredom is the platitudinous web home of Cameron Moll, freelance new media designer, author, and speaker. More…

Come in, we're hiring

Full-time and freelance job opportunities. Post a job...

...view all jobs »


A selection of fine reading, available for a limited time only:

In Print

CSS Mastery CSS Mastery: Advanced Web Standard Solutions A solid round-up of indispensable CSS design techniques by Andy Budd, Simon Collison, and Cameron Moll.

Mobile Web Design Mobile Web Design A guide to publishing web content beyond the desktop. Tips, methodology, and resources. Now available.


Letterpress Posters Letterpress Posters The unassuming beauty of a freshly letterpressed print.

Wicked Worn That Wicked Worn Look. Techniques for that worn, aged, distressed look.

Mister Retro Mister Retro Machine Wash Filters Turn the dial to “Instaworn” with these filters.

Blinksale Blinksale Dive in and enjoy shamelessly easy invoicing from Firewheel Design.

Basecamp Basecamp My preferred web app for internal and client project collaboration.


HOW Conference HOW Conference Austin, June 24–27. Pentagram, Adobe, P&G, et al.

Web Design World Web Design World Seattle, July 20–22. Practical sessions on web design.

An Event Apart Stimulate Salt Lake City, September 2009. Entrepreneurship and design conference.

Feed Me
Articles: RSS
Linkage: RSS

Follow me: Twitter