A Frame of Reference, Part 2: Capturing Ideas

In Part 1 of his two-part series, we looked at the concept of inspiration, and how it is something more than just a commodity to be found and consumed from any one of the numerous design galleries out there on the web. I also suggested that, in many cases, what people are actually talking about when they point to “inspiration” is reference material, which they can subsequently use to direct and inform the progressive evolution of a design.

The crux of the article, however, was the suggestion that there is more to the world than just a collection of galleries, and designers should also consider getting out into the real world and partaking of all the potential solutions that it has to offer. We looked at colour, typography, patterns, textures and even just the randomness of thought.

In this second article, we’ll be looking at a number of practical things that you can do to help capture and record and even build upon ideas and reference materials that you come across in the real world.


Certainly one of the best tools for capturing ideas and reference materials would have to be a camera. Back in the summer of 2010, there as an article published over on Visual Swirl entitled “5 Reasons Every Designer Should Carry a Great Camera”, which offered some insightful tips in this area. The article suggested that a camera is a great way to capture “inspiration” (or reference material), and for capturing textures or images for colour schemes, all of which are directly related to the present discussion.

a camera is a great way to caputre ideas

Personally, I’ve primarily used my own camera for capturing different types of textures, from woods, to fabrics to colourful or grungy surfaces. Often, I will just go on walks through a certain part of the town I live in, or a nearby location, just keeping my eyes open for any surface that has some interesting details and take the opportunity to snap it up.

Having a camera at the ready also prepares you for capturing that perfect colour palette or typographical pairing. Even if you’re not going to be using it for a current or active project, it’s always great to have these kinds of things on file for future reference.

The biggest drawback, however, would be that carrying a high quality digital SLR camera around with you is not always all that practical, especially if you’re like some of my photographer friends, who have at least three different lenses and all kinds of other gear, and a massive protective case to hold it all. It’s not exactly the smallest setup. One option is to also invest in a small, compact camera that can easily fit into a pocket. Another, which we will touch on more below, would be to make use of your smart phone.

Notebook and a Pen(cil)

A slightly more compact (and certainly more traditional) method would be to carry around a notebook and your writing instrument of choice. This affords you the opportunity to jot down different thoughts as they come to you, or perhaps to sketch out a unique layout, logo concept or illustration idea that strikes you during one of your real world adventures (or even in the mundane day-to-day running of errands). If you have your trusty notebook with you at moments like these, it’s always reassuring to jot down the idea and know that you’ve kept a record of it for later.

use a notebook to record thoughts and ideas

If it’s a really great idea, don’t trust yourself to commit it to memory! I can’t tell you how many ideas I’ve lost because I thought I would remember it and then didn’t (my inability to tell stemming, obviously, from my having forgotten). It has definitely happened more than once though, so now I try to make a habit of recording ideas whenever I can.

I’ve noticed that there seems to be a tendency in the design community towards using the Moleskine brand of notebooks for this kind of thing. That makes sense. Designers are drawn towards lovely items with beautiful craftsmanship. So, if that’s you, go for it and enjoy the experience! The simple truth, however, is that any kind of notebook will do. If it has blank pages (lined or otherwise) capable of absorbing ink, chances are it will do just fine.

The most important thing is to have an avenue for recording your thoughts and findings.


Of course, in today’s world of technological marvels, probably the single most powerful tool for capturing and recording ideas is the smart phone. Because I own and have the most experience with the iPhone, that’s the phone that I will be discussing, but I would imagine that many similar tools would also be available on other platforms—especially on Android phones.

Obviously, one of the biggest benefits of using your phone as a recording device is the fact that most people always have their phones with them. Moreover, pretty much every contemporary phone actually comes with a built in camera (or two, depending on the model). This helps to alleviate some of the inconvenience of trying to carry around a digital SLR at all times. Plus, with the ever increasing quality of these camera phones, you can even get nice, high resolution images.

As such, a device like the iPhone can bring you many of the exact same advantages that you might have carrying around a larger camera. The only notable exception would be textures. I have yet to meet a phone that is capable of taking pictures with the amount of quality detail that I want when working with various textures. And I don’t see this changing any time soon either.

That being said, however, there are also a number of extremely useful apps too. We’ll look at a few of those here.

Colour Palettes

ColourSchemerWhen you find an awesome idea for a colour scheme that you think you may want to use or save for a future project, capturing it through a photograph is a great way to archive it. With certain apps, however, we can take things even further and get even more out of those images.

ColorSchemer, from the folks at COLOURlovers.com is one such app that I’ve been using recently. It provides a number of different ways to generate your own colours schemes, including its PhotoSchemer option, which allows you to either snap a photo or select an existing image from the photos on your iPhone, and then chose colours by isolating individual pixels. You can then save the colour scheme to your profile, allowing you to come back to it later, and even to access it from the COLOURlovers.com website, where you can do all sorts of interesting things with them.

Another app that I’ve been using is Palettes. It also allows you to create colour schemes based on a photo. The biggest difference from ColourSchemer is that Palettes will actually run a few internal calculations in order to generate the palette automatically. You can also generate monochromatic, analogous, complementary and traid-based schemes based on a single colour, much the same way you can with Adobe’s Kuler.

It’s also worth noting that there are different versions of Palettes, including a pro version and a free version. I’m running the free version, but when I first installed it, it gave me a trial run of the pro version, which has extended functionality and allows you to create and manage palettes of up to 25 colours.

Also, there are all kinds of similar colour apps out there, so feel free to do some iTunes research and determine which one might work best for you!

What The Font?

What the Font?One of the things that we talked about in the previous article was coming across different forms of typography out in the real world. Obviously, one simple way to record these occurrences with your phone is to just take a quick snapshot. With the What the Font? app, you have the potential to take it even further!

It’s kind of like Shazam for designers—except that instead of identifying different songs, it can be used to identify fonts!

So, not only can you snap a visual reference of interesting type that you find out in the real world, you can also use that snapshot to potentially identify the typeface so that you can use it in your own work. I say “potentially” for a couple of reasons. First, the app is not perfect. Sometimes it can have difficulty identifying certain letters, and it doesn’t always return the exact font. Secondly (and probably related), the app is produced by MyFonts, and is connected directly to their own database of fonts.

Also, image quality can be a bit of an issue. I still have an iPhone 3G, and in certain low light conditions, the photos it takes can be pretty blurry, making it difficult for the app to isolate the individual letters, and thus also difficult to identify the font. I would expect that recognition would work better on the iPhone 4.

Still, it’s a useful app to have at your fingertips, even just for the sake of general geekiness.


EvernoteEvernote is an awesome little application for recording and capturing ideas on the go, and remains on of the key tools in my arsenal of idea recording apps. It allows you to create “notes” in three different formats—textual, photographic or audio. In other words, you can type out your ideas, capture a photo or even leave yourself a voice message.

The flexibility in terms of note types is nice, but where this app comes in really handy is its ability to sync to your Evernote account. You can then use the native desktop application or the Evernote website to access your notes.

Personally, I don’t use the website very often, but I love being able to sync between my phone and my computer. Often, I may be out and about and see, hear or experience something that gives me a great idea for an article. With Evernote, I can whip out my phone and jot down a few comments. Or, if I have the time and am feeling particularly ambitious, I can even start putting together a basic outline. Then, once I’m back home, I can download the note and use it as a starting point for the article!

And the best part? Both the iPhone app, desktop app and a basic subscription are free. With the basic subscription, you have limited monthly transfer limits, but I’ve never found that I get anywhere close to maxing out those limits, so its been the perfect tool for me!

Adobe Ideas

Adobe IdeasThe last app that I want to highlight here is Adobe Ideas. In many ways, it’s a really simple, conceptual extention of Photoshop, allowing you to use the iPhone’s touch functionality to sketch out your ideas. I liken it to glorified, digital finger painting, but it’s a really great tool for capturing and recording ideas when you’re out and about (or maybe even if you’re at home).

You can either start with an entirely blank canvas, take a new photo or work on an existing photo. The app itself provides you with a basic, round brush—allowing you to control its size, opacity and colour—and eraser, move and undo tools. It also provides you with a simple, five colour palette, and the ability to select a colour from the built in colour picker.

Moreover, for a modest fee, you can also upgrade the app to be able to use up to 10 layers.

Interestingly, Ideas also has a built in colour palette generator. In a similar fashion to what we saw with some of the colour apps that we discussed above, this tool allows you to generate new colour themes from a photo. However, as far as I have been able to tell, these themes can really only be used within the app itself (in other words, there is no export), and there is very little information actually provided about the colours. So, while it can be great for generating a colour palette for sketching with, it’s probably not going to work as a replacement for a more robust colour app.

Regardless, the real benefit of a tool like this is to provide an outlet for visually expressing ideas as they strike you. An app like Evernote is great for recording ideas in text, photos or audio, while colour apps and What the Font? can help you isolate specific design elements. Adobe Ideas helps fill in an obvious gap, by providing a portable, digital canvas that you can carry around in your pocket!

If you’re interested in this kind of thing, you might also want to consider checking out SketchBook Mobile, which is similar sort of drawing app that I have also used in the past.


So there you have it. I hope that this article has given you some ideas about how you can prepare yourself to be ready whenever a unique or interesting idea or potential bit of reference material presents itself. Whether it’s through the use of a camera, a good old fashioned notebook or the smart phone in your pocket (or purse), it’s always a good idea to take a page from the boy scouts, and be prepared!

  1. February 11, 2011

    Thank you..really informative!!

  2. February 12, 2011

    notebook and pencil rocks!

  3. February 13, 2011

    I prefer notebook and pencil, they are enough for me.

  4. February 14, 2011

    A great article to read. Personally I’m a traditional notebook and pencil girl for recording my ideas. My memory is less than rubbish so I always carry round a notebook to jot down my ideas or inspiration I find.

  5. March 15, 2011

    I can seriously relate to this posting! I’m already a journaling (just like notebooks) and crazy about fountain pens), photography (just like the gadgetry associated with it) and technology (if Apple sells it I buy) junkie now I can justify my addiction.:)

    Great Post!


  6. June 8, 2011

    No kidding about losing ideas because of the thought that myself would remember. I had lost a bunch of great ideas before. With the help of smartphones, and notebooks, this problem is now solved for me.

    Great read. Everything is somehow related to each other.

  7. June 20, 2011

    Great post! I think you must have sneaked a peek into my handbag! I have all three of those in there ^.^

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