Building a
Visual Library

Training your eyes to know what they are looking at

Building a visual library is something that every designer should incorporate into their daily routine from the moment they grab their first pencil. After all, how can we live up to the claim of creating something new and unique if we don’t even know what’s already out there? The ability to appreciate and discern [aesthetics] has become increasingly valuable. Whether it is in art, design, fashion, or any creative field, having a well-developed taste is crucial. Building up a visual library plays a pivotal role in cultivating an individual’s taste. By exposing ourselves to a wide range of visual stimuli and absorbing their inherent qualities, we expand our understanding, develop a discerning eye, and enhance our ability to appreciate beauty.

We live in the heyday of information technology. Everything is readily available at our fingertips and day by day it becomes less important to know how something works. Instead, knowing how to look something up (most probably on the the internet) is a vital skill. Typing in something into a search engine is the easy part. But if you want to find quality information you have to dig a little deeper. And when you already have a working core library ingested over the years, you have a head start on finding the good stuff, oftentimes even without the need to look something up.

Avoid being algorhitmicized

To not fall victim to some all encompassing search engine algorhitm it is important to build up your own visual library with content that is curated by yourself with no intermediaries. These could be things that you like or things that inspire you, things that nourish your desire to explore the world around you through more than just your computer screen.

And by “visual library” I do not just mean images you saved from Behance and Dribbble into your downloads folder, but I really mean a visual library. The focus for you should be images, visuals, colors, photos etc. What matters is that you have selected those images for a specific reason. Of course, they can come from the internet. But they have to be augmented by content you found on your own. Photographs you took somewhere. Snapshots and ideas you took with your mobile phone. Or from actual books, as the term “visual library” already suggests. Books have the big advantage that they often carry much more information than just the image. This helps you to learn about the contexts and timeframes in which those images or what they are depicting have been produced. This is especially interesting if you start to explore the boundaries of the areas you are already interested in and start to venture out more and more into the fringes and beyond. Looking at books concerned with medieval cooking equipment from feudal Japan can have nuggets of ideas to apply to your next product design. This is a connection that cannot be made with search engines alone.

Looking at actual books in a real library has the advantage that you can stumble about things you were not looking for. This is simply not possible with search engines, where you can only find what you are looking for. The first hurdle you have to take is that you need to type in something into the search bar. The next hurdle is that the algorithm only shows you relevant information. But if the results are more relevant to you or the search engine provider remains a mystery. So if you truly want to stumble about something that is a little bit harder to find, you have to be the one digging for it.

The visuals have to be relevant to you

The important part is that those images are truly your own selection so that they can truly show your authentic self and what is important to you as a designer. I have started collecting images some fourteen years ago, when I studied graphic design (some say I even collected images before that). And I am still collecting images now. Almost everyday I have at least a hand full of images I add to my visual library. From time to time I go through the images. Sometimes because I have a project coming up that I need some nice references for. And sometimes just for some fresh ideas. It is amazing how good those folders of my collection perpetuate creativity. At the time of writing there are at least a quarter million images sitting on my harddrive that I am coming back to every now and again. The number is still growing although not as fast as it used to. It is a large mix of images I found on the internet and I took on my own. Stylisticly it is a broad range. But it is important to note that I do not look at the picture as a whole but maybe I am just looking at specific parts of the images that have piqued my interest. And everytime I go back into those folders I am thinking about creating a datavisualization project about all of the stuff I have collected in there. Wouldn’t it be interesting to know how many pixels are in there? What the most used colour in those images is? If there are more photographs or more graphics? More Graphic Design or 3D CGI? Etc. You see, there is a lot of stuff hidden on that harddrive. And it is important for you to look at a lot of stuff too.

Look at a lot of stuff!

And I mean a lot! In terms of designers, this means that a lot really is a lot. A heap. A fucking huge amount. But it does not, it can not happen over a day or a week. Looking at a lot of stuff takes years. Because looking does not mean saving a pic to your harddrive. Looking does not mean “just registering with your eyes”. Looking means seeing, analyzing and most important: thinking. It is important to look at as much as possible. And then think about that. Shapes, colours, approaches, implementations, etc. Make sure that you don’t just move within your own sphere of influence (web design, graphic design, product design, etc.), but also look beyond the famous and often quoted edge of your nose. Go to libraries, museums, markets. Look at architecture. Talk with people. And after that think about it. Contemplate. If you don’t do that, you run the risk of self-referential myopia.

You can only expand on the edges

It is not without reason that “interdisciplinarity” is one of the big buzzwords of our time, which has started to transform the education sector and is now changing whole industries. At least that’s how it reads in job descriptions and headlines of industry association magazines. However, we are far away from true interdisciplinarity in the real world of work. It exists primarily on paper.

Every designer with a few years under their belt has been in the situation at least once where a concept they are working on (whether self-developed or externally determined) crosses their path in a very similar form in another place. This is very annoying, especially when the project scheduled advanced and you no longer have the possibility to get out of the situation in an economically viable way. With a large visual library, such situations cannot be avoided, but they can be mitigated to a greater extent.

Being exposed to a lot of visual art stimulates personal creativity. By examining a wide range of visual references, you begin to identify patterns, motifs, and themes that resonate with your own artistic inclinations. Exposure to different styles and approaches can spark new ideas, encourage experimentation and the development of a unique artistic voice.

After all, if you look at a lot, you see a lot. But just looking at a lot is not enough.

Just looking is not enough.

As is so often the case, passive consumption alone does not help. After all, the term “visual library” is no coincidence. And as in a classical library, the visual impressions must be prepared and organised in a meaningful way so that you don’t just have the feeling “I’ve seen that before”, but can also refer back to it if necessary. There are many different methods on how to organise a library, and it’s not for nothing that this has become a separate area of expertise that I can’t and don’t want to go into here.

But a Pinterest board alone is not enough. Pinterest is certainly a very good tool for finding new and, above all, similar images, but the danger of Pinterest, as with all other online portals, is that you only ever find what you are already looking for. So you also say that Pinterest, like most other portals is merely just a specialized tool for finding similar images.

The fact that you only ever find online what you are already looking for is one of the main arguments why I still recommend to go to a real, classical, public library or bookstore. With real books, organised on real, physical shelves. Because the simple fact that you see a lot of books from different topics, even those you are not really interested in, is invaluable. Wandering through the isles, shelf by shelf, book by book, page by page, lets you discover things that you wouldn’t find so easily in a Google search.

Developing a Discerning Eye

A well-built visual library serves as a constant source of inspiration and education. It allows you to study the works of master artists, designers, and photographers who have achieved greatness in their respective fields. By carefully observing and analyzing these works, you can develop a discerning eye for [[quality]], [[composition]], [[color-harmony]], and other elements that contribute to visual appeal. This meticulous study trains the mind to recognize excellence and to distinguish between different qualities of work in the pieces you look at as well as detecting faults in your own work. With time and practice, this ability becomes ingrained, leading to a more refined taste and an innate understanding of what is aesthetically pleasing, some of which is really hard to put into words. Over time this leads to greatly improved quality in your own work.

Expanding Horizons

By actively collecting and organising diverse visual materials you expose yourself to a wealth of creative expressions by a lot of other people. Those creative expressions may not be evidently creative on the surface, but they can mean something specific or something creative that is relevant to you in that moment.

This exposure means to widen your horizons and it can introduce you to different styles, movements, cultures, and historical periods that you were not interested in before. By providing a gateway to understanding different cultures, histories, and societal narratives this improves your character by increasing your awareness and appreciation of cultures outside of your own. Artistic expressions are often deeply rooted in the cultural and historical contexts in which they emerge. By studying artworks from different regions and time periods, individuals gain insights into the values, beliefs, and experiences of various communities and learn about the background that lead to the emergence of those qualities.

Missing interest often is related to the ability to see a relevance for your own development. This is the age-old fallacy of [[whats-in-it-for-me]]? By keeping at it you will see that this exposure provides you with a broader perspective and a deeper understanding of the nuances that contribute to the overall artistic experience and that you can conversely apply to your future works. Above that a cross-cultural understanding fosters empathy, broadens perspectives, and cultivates a global mindset. With that in mind, the development of taste becomes a more inclusive and culturally aware process, enabling individuals to appreciate and embrace diverse artistic traditions.

By actively engaging with visual stimuli, you can refine your taste, enrich your creative endeavors, and foster a lifelong appreciation for beauty in all its forms. , Sources

Feng Zhu – Design Cinema – EP 52 – Visual Library – Feng Zhu speaks a lot about the importance of building a visual library in his Design Cinema Series. The Series is focused on creating [[concept-art]], but a lot of what he talks about applies to other design disciplines as well.