Inspiration Journaling: The Art of Generating Ideas

“Keep a swipe file. It’s just what it sounds like- a file to keep track of the stuff you’ve swiped from others. […] See something worth stealing? Put it in the swipe file. Need a little inspiration? Open up the swipe file.”

Austin Kleon, Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told you about Being Creative

If you’ve established any kind of creative habit, you know that waiting around for inspiration to strike just… doesn’t…work. It’s certainly nice when an exciting idea comes to you, but that fired-up emotional state that we call inspiration has a way of showing up exactly when it wants to- and never when we need it to. For long-term, consistent creativity, we have to use some kind of reliable system for storing, exploring, and generating great material for your artistic work.

For me, that’s where my inspiration journal (or inspo journal for short) comes in. My inspo journal is a messy, anything-goes space for brainstorming and stashing incomplete ideas for my art projects. No matter how I’m feeling on a given day, spending a few minutes looking at my journal puts me in a frame of mind to create. Today, I’m going to take you on a tour of my journal and give you some ideas for starting one of your own. Let’s jump in!


The beauty of the inspo journal is that it’s incredibly easy to start. You probably already have all the supplies you’ll need in your home:

  • A blank, unlined notebook. I use an Amazon Basics 5×8” blank notebook (the same model as my “dry” sketchbook).
  • Scissors
  • Washi tape or a glue stick for pasting elements into your journal.
  • Pens and pencils for taking notes.

From here, anything is fair game. Magazine clippings, song lyrics, brainstorms, charts, quotes, fabric swatches, anything that sparks an idea that you can use later. Here are some ways that I like to use my journal:


The first half of my inspo journal is a scrapbook of sorts. It’s full of pictures, fabrics, and color combos that I can transform in some way for a future project.

Next to each element in the journal, I try to make a note of where it came from. This gives me a starting point for any future design research I’d like to do. For example, the page on the above right features a great photo from a Kate Spade ad campaign. If I ever want to look for similar designs and colors, I always know where this photo came from.  I also try to fill these pages with detailed notes on why I chose each element, and I jot down a few quick thoughts on how to use similar concepts later on.

I’m particularly proud of this page in the journal, devoted to the color combo of navy, red, and light pink. I kept seeing these colors pop up everywhere, and continued adding to this page as time passed. Spoonflower’s magazine (top-left and bottom-left clippings) confirmed my trend-watching by highlighting these colors as a great combo for Spring!

The back half of my journal is dedicated to notes, lists, and charts. It’s so helpful to have notes from Skillshare classes, client meetings, and solo brainstorms all in one place. When I need to explore an idea thoroughly from multiple angles, that’s usually where a written brainstorm comes in handy.


These pages are early outline drafts of my two Skillshare classes, “From Page to Pattern” and “Learn to Draw Faces with 4 Simple Shapes.” These outlines went through several stages of development; I sketched out a few in the journal first, and then moved the more polished versions onto my laptop. Writing out my plan by hand first really helped me slow down to consider each step, and it prevented me from editing my outline right away (more on self-editing later).

(As you can see, my original title for “From Page to Pattern” was “From Sketchbook to Surface Design,” which was… significantly less snappy.)

My other favorite technique for written brainstorming is making a chart like the one below. This goes by many names; idea map, mind map, concept map, but my personal favorite is spider chart, because it’s all about circles and spindly legs.

This chart was a brainstorm for some summer patterns inspired by the city of Charleston, South Carolina. On the bottom-left you can see a VERY rough sketch for what eventually became my Vintage Beach Toile.

A spider chart is super simple to put together: Just start with your central topic in a bubble on the center of the page (mine was CHARLESTON), then begin breaking that central theme down into sub-topics, and connect them to the center bubble with a line. You can continue dividing and connecting bubbles any way you like.

With this chart I asked myself, “what do I think of when I think of Charleston?” I thought of the beach, and connected that in a new bubble. I broke that down even further into bubbles for “sun,” “sand,” “shells,” and more. I went back to my main concept and added “FOOD,” and started thinking about foods I like to eat on vacation. At this point, I wasn’t trying to think of what would translate well into a pattern, I was just recording as many thoughts as I could. Try to picture a pattern based on Feta cheese. Can’t do it? Neither can I. It’s on the chart anyway.


However you decide to keep track of your ideas, the biggest key to effective brainstorming  is eliminating self-censorship.

Eliminating self-censorship (or self-editing) is a principle that has helped me SO much: In the brainstorming stage, your job is not to evaluate whether an idea is good or bad. Your job is just to generate A LOT of ideas. Worry about deciding which ones to use later.  That’s what your inspo journal (swipe file, Pinterest board, notebook) is all about: generating raw material from which to sculpt your amazing work.

Inspiration journaling has been such a freeing practice for me as an artist. If I have an idea that I can’t devote time to at the moment, I’ll write it in the journal. If I’m feeling tapped out, I always have a wealth of prompts in the journal. That allows me to separate my creativity from my emotional or physical circumstances. Now matter how I feel, I still have material from which to create. However that system looks for you, I hope you can find a place to collect your awesome ideas for a rainy day.


Do you keep an inspiration journal, or do you go digital with Pinterest boards and bookmark folders? What’s your go-to place for great ideas? Share your favorite tips and techniques in the comments!


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