Form, function & inspiration

Finding valuable design inspiration in everyday places

As a longtime moderator on the Graphic Design Forum, I often field questions from designers with less experience. Recently, a new designer asked where he could look for inspiration. He complained that the most innovative work was out of reach since it came from large agencies with world-class clients. Here was my reply about finding inspiration in everyday places.



MY APPRECIATION FOR GOOD DESIGN grew enormously during the first year of my university design program. Among other assignments, each week throughout the school year, we traced hundreds of words from magazines onto layout paper.

At some point during that year, while tracing the lowercase a in a headline set in Helvetica, it occurred to me that this letter was a near-perfect blend of form and function.

Despite it being everywhere, no one ever noticed Helvetica. It was read but never really seen or appreciated. Although it wasn’t ugly, Helvetica wasn’t necessarily beautiful either. Instead, it existed in a role I had never fully appreciated — something intentionally designed to be purely functional, utilitarian, generic, and all but invisible in its subservient role of spelling out the words that communicate thoughts and ideas.

I remember studying that letter a and all the other letters in the typeface to tease apart their designs. The lines of each letter were crisp, clear, and minimally simple. Yet each letter was subtly and deceptively complex. The curves were immaculate. The weight balances were perfect. The rhythms, harmonies, hierarchies, and every element of good design were there. Each element was identifiable beneath the intentional blandness of the letters.

Something clicked. A light went on that enabled me to see and evaluate designed objects from a different perspective. I’ve moved on from Helvetica, but that insight still forms the basis of my approach to and appreciation of good design.

What does any of this have to do with the big, world-class ad campaigns and clients you mentioned? The answer is absolutely nothing whatsoever, which is precisely my point.

Cory Maylett

Cory Maylett

I'm a proponent of developing practical solutions to communication problems through good design. My career has included newspapers, magazines, books, websites, corporate branding and typefaces.