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Art of: Design Research

The greatest exercise you can do with your client is collaborating on the design research aspect of the project. It shows them the design process, makes them feel like they are contributing more than just giving direction, and gives them another chance to explain who they are visually, incase they weren’t clear before. Here are some tools I use to do visual research on my own and collaboratively:

Image Searching:


There’s no denying that google is the best tool to find a picture of practically anything. Most clients will go to google first thing and find images that inspire them there. I have no problems with that as long as you explain to them that anything they find on google, can not be used as actual assets or references in the design because it’s copywrite infringement. Screen Shot 2013-01-08 at 8.41.42 AM


If I’ve got a creative client, especially in the blogging, crafting, feminine worlds, they might already be searching on pinterest. Because the users are mostly creatives and women, I find the images are higher in quality. Not in resolution, but in photographic content. When you search for shoe, you wont find a child’s drawing of a shoe, instead you’ll find a bunch of designer heals or DIY shoe laces.

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Stock Accounts:

If your client is a little more on the corporate, non-creative side, you may find more images on stock sites. Again you don’t have to purchase them for inspiration, unless you actually use them in a design piece. Here’s a break down of some of the stock sites I’ve used for clients:

Dreamstime: cheap of the cheap. Not the best quality or the best selection, but this is always my go-to just to see if I’ll get lucky.

Thinkstock: I believe (dont quote me) that thinkstock has some sort of a deal with other stock sites, because it tells you where the stock image originally came from. The plus side is that it’s super cheap stock. This was great when a company I worked for needed one stock image for their daily facebook post because they were able to get a subscription price and download whatever they needed.

Istock: Kind of the middle of the road when it comes to stock sites. They have good quality stock, mixed in with bad quality. The search engine isn’t as filterable as think stock, but if you dig, you can find great stuff.

veer: Veer has quality images, but it’s more pricey. I work for a company that purchases a subscription of 20 downloads a day. The catch is that whatever subscription plan we’re on, doesn’t give us access to the entire archive, just a portion of it.

ghetty: super corporate, great search results, but really really expensive. I do not suggest using this for a small company, because they charge by number of uses or duration of usage. They also have editorial images, if you’re looking for a shot of a famous person or place.


If you and your client can’t meet, then sharing your inspiration with eachother is vital. Here are a few options to do that.

Pinterest: Pinterest is not only easy, but a great inspiration organization tool. You could have one board for each of your clients, share the board with them and then both of you have the ability to pin things to that board. For confidentiality, you can make the board private, so that no one can see. I keep secret code names like “sparkle” or “luxury” so that it isn’t obvious who I’m doing this for. Pinterest is also a great search source for some topics. Because it is female-centric, you will fine a lot of images have a better creative quality to them. The topics range from DIY, to fashion, decor, celebrities, art, design etc. Keeping that in mind, there are still many people (men especially) that aren’t on pinterest. If they don’t wish to contribute via pinterest, try dropbox or other cloud sharing services.

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Cloud services:

I use dropbox because every time I invite a new member to share with one of my folders, I get an extra bit of space. I’m up to 6.5 gigs of free space now, and that’s just dandy. Some people purchase terabytes of space on the cloud services, which is fine too. I just am old fashioned. I have all my stuff backed up on 4 drives at home. Regaurdless of what service you use, free or paid, you can definitely share one folder of inspiration that both you and your client can access.

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Evernote has gotten a lot bigger since I first started using it. What I liked about it was that you could create “notebooks” for specific themes/clients and put all your inspiration images in it from your computer and then it would sync to a your tablet device and you’d have that information on the go. You could meet with a client and show them all your inspiration that way. Now, I believe you can even share the notebook with a client directly through email or something.

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Blogs are a great supplement to your research because they can be curated by someone who’s very knowledgeable in their field. On the other side of the coin, they could just be writing out of zero experience and are forming their own opinions on the subject, so be careful and make sure your sources are reliable. This isn’t as important when looking for image inspiration, but when you start to dig deeper into consumer research, it will become more important to have accurate data. When checking out blogs/websites dedicated to your client’s industry, it’s important to look at trends in web design, color schemes, and visual language. These things matter because you want to keep to the norm, but make it fresh and unique to your client.


Tumblr is a simple blogging platform usually used for photo sharing. What’s nice about it is that you can tag your images with different key words so that when you search that keyword, you find all images with that tag. The reason why it’s not my favorite is because you can’t see everything at once and often visual research needs to be see. As a whole to tell a story.


Books and magazines: If your client is having trouble explaining their companys ideals and goals, pick up some books about their industry and fill in the gaps that way. In order to make good design decisions for your client, you must know about their business, their customers, and the industry.

Color palettes:


kuler is adobe’s color palette creator. The beauty of it is that once you create or find a color palette you like, you can download that palette and use it in any of the adobe programs.

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Colour lovers:

Colour lovers is a similar concept but also incorporates pattern design and color trends. I personally like this site better because they address hierarchy of color. Instead of having 5 color bars all with equal weight, you have the ability to toggle the widths of each color bar based on how much of each color you think a design should have. For example, if you choose to have your two primary colors to be a light blue and a dark blue, they would be the largest, and then maybe a yellow, orange, and white are used less, so they would be smaller bars in the palette.

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