Halloween is nigh, so let’s begin somewhere haunted—the Cincinnati subway; the elaborate, decades-in-the-making subterranean railway that never was (see map here). Today, a handful of Haunted Cincinnati tours take spook-seeking tourists to its damp tunnel ruins, showcasing tales of criminal hideouts and dumped bodies in the nation’s largest abandoned subway.
What if the results of that huge tunneling project were actually good for something? What if the “dead” shell became imbued with possibility—with life? In fact, folks are creatively answering those questions today in the ghost stations of London (also this), Paris, even aforementioned Cincinnati.
Internet marketers are known to keep “swipe files” on hand. So, why shouldn’t designers take a cue from their advertising and civil engineering brethren. Score inspiration from these other abandoned subways and look for opportunities to breathe new life into ideas that didn’t work out the first time. A “Frankenstein” mentality can be a distinct advantage in some scenarios. Below, read tips from our in-house designers here at Digital Telepathy (DT) on how to cultivate a design graveyard.
Design Graveyard: Where do design ideas go after they die?
Projects halt for all sorts of reasons: funding, market shifts, lack of clear objectives. And the best ideas are sometimes turned down out of one person’s preference. But what happens to those ideas after they’re tossed aside? Keeping original plans organized—whether they were inspired or utterly flawed—instead of always moving forward and forgetting, puts a retainer of creativity at your disposal.
When asked, “Where do you keep your dead designs,” no two DT designers had the same response. Yet, most importantly, almost everyone had a specific and single destination or graveyard for their designs that never saw light of day.
DT Graveyards include:
- Folders on Dropbox, Trello, InVision, Behance, Dribble and Evernote.
- Lurking in server PSD files.
- As well as, “I burn them in a fire every full moon (or they just get put on an external HD).”
Strolling through past ideas in their raw form can be one of the most potent hits of creativity.
Others say it depends on the design itself. More complete designs dwell in named file folders (xyz_contact_form2), while preliminary designs, rudimentary sketches and wireframes sit in living “ideas” documents. Strolling through past ideas in their raw form can be one of the most potent hits of creativity.
When to Go Grave-Robbing (or Let ‘Em Rest in Peace)
Looking through your design graveyard as a new project begins, or in the midst of a design slump, gives you a moment to marvel at the energy of earlier work, or provide evidence to personal growth. One DT designer scopes their graveyard, “…because it helps me understand how I’ve developed as a designer, and where I can grow.”
Beyond design inspiration, these files can be picked over for pieces of the whole that stand on their own. In other words, stealing ideas from yourself—a habit that writers and designers know well:
- “Because we regularly work with clients for an extended period of time, we often leverage designs from one project to another. For example, a table style from a Settings page could be repurposed to a Users or Groups page.”
- “[U]sually small things are reused a lot in illustrations, designs, branding projects, etc. With branding projects, you’ll usually reuse old designs in the early process to help gauge the client’s likes and dislikes. I’ve had a few even become the final design. With web work, buttons, button styles, typography, images, icons, illustrations, and more, these can easily be reused and repurposed for new designs and clients.”
- “I’ve repurposed some elements to show a client an idea before I execute it, these could be icons, web banners, typography styles…”
- “When clients are not very sure of what they want, or ask for a mix of styles, I then tend to add parts of dead ones. It’s what we call a Frankenstein design.”
Going “Full Frankenstein”
In Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” (The O.G. version), the unnamed monster isn’t a composite of stitched together human parts, but a single exhumed corpse brought to life through mysterious chemistry and alchemy. True to this version of the story, going Full Frankenstein as a designer means finding a dead design from the past and giving it new life, whole and as-is.
On this, most designers feel that this is not a realistic approach to custom designing:
- “No… more often than not, a design is too customized to content or concept to really be ‘Frankenstein-ed’, and I personally have a hard time justifying it.“
- ”Nope, I always re-build designs”
While some feel that going part-Frankenstein has been helpful:
- “For a while, I used the same vector illustrations in several projects because they just happened to need the same thing.”
Others admit to the practice:
- “Of course. We do this all the time.”
Going Full Frankenstein can be, frankly (cough, cough) a result of chance—for instance, a client wants exactly what you previously finished and have sitting in your design graveyard, so it really can’t be a reliable strategy. Yet, almost DT designers feel the value of keeping those dead designs around for other reasons. One way or another, retaining foregone projects and ideas that did not work out only improves the chances of getting it right the next time.
Any creator of whatever is gonna have a junk heap—that’s just the way it goes. But rather than hiding the dead under a rug, many keep the keys to design graveyards on hand, and for good reason:
- Design graveyards are a way to learn from mistakes.
- They’re a way to rekindle creative energy, evident in old sketches and half-finished ideas.
- They can serve as a project shortcut, a place to cherrypick fitting pieces of good work.
- And sometimes, sometimes design graveyards can act as a catalog of ready-made projects to serve up to clients.
Whenever you create something, that something stays with you in ways that are hard to understand. But keeping track of all that you have created—whether or not you would put it on the mantle—can mean a bank of resources and a clear route toward improving your work. Stay in touch with the dead, friends!