Finding inspiration in art

In my work as a user experience designer at Söderhavet I often seek inspiration at design- and UX conferences. These events, while enjoyable, can get a bit repetitive, so this past summer I sought out an alternative source of inspiration while on vacation in Italy.

The Venice art biennale is a massive event. Every other year it fills the vast post-medieval warehouses of the Arsenale area and the many pavilions of the Giardini parklands. Art from all over the world (88 countries participated this year) is on display and you can easily find yourself overwhelmed if you try to see everything in just a few days.

Considering the sheer amount of impressions I subjected myself to, I emerged relatively unscathed and brimming with inspiration. From my notebook observations, here are some principles that made certain works stand out for me from a design perspective:

Repetition and Pattern

Channa Horwitz - repeating geometric shapes

One of the artists I got stuck on at this year’s event was Channa Horwitz and her graphics based on geometric patterns, repetition and numerology. Her works are stunningly modernistic and seem to be created somewhere at the intersection of art, mathematics and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Sadly, she passed away earlier this year. See more of her work at the Francois Ghebaly Gallery.

In web design, patterns on a larger scale can be the overarching theme of a design that helps users recognize individual webpages as part of a larger whole and thereby make sense of them more quickly. Reusing design elements creates a cohesive feel for the entire site and brand. We can also help users make sense of interactions by using them consistently.

On a smaller scale, patterns can be graphical elements, frequently used as backgrounds or to add texture to a design. Patterns in this form are often overlooked as strong identity bearers in branding — whether online or offline.

Size and Space


Objects often gain notability from the contrast between their size and the space they inhabit. The emphasis a few objects gained on the floor of a huge warehouse, and the impression given by a building filled with the rubble from another demolished building (in Spain’s pavilion) stayed with me longer than other works exhibited in more traditional ways.

In web design, even if a webpage very much remains a flat surface, designers often neglect to see and work with negative space. Here we have much to learn from any field where composition is used. For instance, the next time you pass a store front with a great window display, try taking the time to figure out what makes it attractive.


A commonly employed method by artists at the biennale was creating cutouts or openings in walls or objects, to guide the viewer’s eye. This approach awakens our natural curiosity, and the guidance can help us understand what we are viewing. The example above is from the republic of Kosovo´s contribution, in the shape of a gigantic birds nest.

When designing a web page think about how the user’s eye scans it. A good approach is to use eye-tracking studies to ensure pages are viewed as intended. In usability testing I have noticed that strong horizontal breaks can stop users scrolling, while a high-contrast top navigation can seem to “disappear” for the user and become part of the browser window frame.

Limited access

At some installations there where stewards making sure only a specific amount of people entered at a time, thus creating the space needed to perceive the artwork as the artist envisioned it. A repercussion of this limited access was long queues. The queues in themselves brought on curiosity and heightened expectations.

[pullquote]Scarcity — or the perception of exclusivity — goes a long way to creating desire.[/pullquote]

Scarcity — or the perception of exclusivity — goes a long way to creating desire. If there is enough buzz around your brand/product, an invite-only beta might do the trick (for a specific audience). However, getting featured on TechCrunch may no longer be enough; if what you are doing is not really game changing, you will have to deliver real value.

Interactivity (duh!)


While we do interact with works of art just by looking, it is pretty obvious that people will engage more with pieces that allow active participation rather than passive contemplation. The Vatican’s contribution, while perhaps not technically perfect in execution, probably generated more visible reactions (mostly smiles) than most other installations I visited.

These are just some examples of what caught my eye at the exhibitions. Although conferences, art exhibitions and such are great places to go for inspiration, remember to stay curious and actively look for it in your surroundings every day.

Sound off in the comments if you have something to add.

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