A gentle reminder to those who make their living by drawing pretty pictures on computer monitors: The best design inspiration often arrives when you’re far from the keyboard.

Many journeyman web designers tend to seek new ideas in the work of their peers, mining other sites for trends and themes to use in their own sites. There’s nothing wrong in finding inspiration in the work of others, of course, but I’ve found that my best ideas don’t visit me at my computer.

This was brought home last weekend when Ellen and I went for a walk in St. Germain-en-Laye, a few miles west of Paris. Strolling around the chateau and into the forest, we lost ourselves in a beautiful setting totally divorced from a universe of pixels. And baby, Mother Nature is a heckuva designer.

The light of a Sunday afternoon in late autumn made the forest glow. We discovered odd, wispy flora and funky little fungi. On the grounds of the chateau, the trees and shrubs still followed the inspired strokes of landscape designers who died centuries ago.

After we got home, the ideas spilled out. I filled several notebook pages with sketches for new Big Medium design themes. Amazing. Our little afternoon nature escape uncorked creative energy that had been trapped by too much time in front of a computer screen.

The camera helps. I’ve found that just having a camera in my pocket makes me more more aware of the visual details in my life. For me, that’s the real revolution of digital photography: Now that taking a photo is fast, easy and cheap, every moment presents a potential photograph. I see more now. There’s so much cool stuff rushing past all the time. What’s better inspiration than that?

When designer’s block strikes, get out of the house, breathe a little fresh air. You’ll be surprised what you might learn.

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