The Delicate Balance of Reference

The Delicate Balance of Reference

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Raise your hand if you’ve ever been victimized by your own mood board


‍Written by Curtis Wingate, Associate Creative Director
For the non-designers reading, imagine facing an onslaught of jpegs—you’re being pummeled by the collective works of tens of thousands of people. It is a glutton of resources. It is simply too much—how are you supposed to think in here?

This is how I feel about the internet. As a designer, I go to the www mostly for visual reference - it’s great. It broadens my horizons, sparks new ideas, and expedites brainstorming. It's invaluable for finding that perfect image to pitch a concept to a client. Yet, for all its benefits, there's an ugly truth: it’s a trap. 

Yes, the internet is a treasure trove of inspiration. From Tumblr to Pinterest to Instagram to Savee, countless platforms beckon creatives to explore. We spend hours trawling through them, saving, pinning, and archiving images for projects that may never materialize. It's part research, part compulsion, and a hoarding habit many have grown accustomed to. How often have I glanced at a colleague's mood board only to say, “Oh, I’ve used that one too…”? We're all drawing from the same well of visual stimuli, guided by algorithms that shape and flatten the world around us. See? Trap. 

My gripe with visual reference isn't the danger of mimicking existing styles – it's the illusion of productivity that I have a bone to pick with. Image collecting is too easy: Right-click-save, drag-drop, rearrange, recolor, convert from .webp (just kidding, screenshot!). This busyness can give the false impression of actively creating, or worse, even being capable of reproducing those images myself. It's like watching cooking shows without ever stepping into the kitchen, or, my recent slack-jawed and wide-eyed observation: kids watching "play videos" without actually engaging in play themselves. 

Organizing and cataloging imagery can feel like a substitute for genuine creativity. As if by saving this image, I will somehow absorb this skill, this taste, and this output. It’s about curation rather than creation, and while there's an art to that, I find that there's no substitute for rolling up my sleeves and getting hands-on if I want to produce original work. I embrace experimentation, welcome mistakes, and dare to make something so ugly and far from my intention that it makes me question if I have any talent, natural or learned.

I can always delete it.

I’m not here to take down mood boards, or the endless accounts that so lovingly curate imagery. I wonder: are we all fooling ourselves into thinking this is productive?


Of course, there is another side to this coin, and this is where my argument falls apart. Enter my current obsession: Are.na

This visual archive evokes memories of the internet's early days: the clunky interfaces, the unpredictable search results, and a sense of endless discovery just a click away. Are.na feels different. It's a haven for archivists with niche interests, from collections on 'Gen X Corporate' aesthetics to my new favorite term, ‘Techno Fossils.’ The content here feels more academic, rarer, and less commercial than the glossy boards of Pinterest. Its nostalgic charm owes much to the wealth of images spanning the 80s to the early 2000s – a visual chronicle of a time when technology seemed like magic and when advertising peddled dreams rather than specs. 

Am I just (once again) falling for nostalgia? Yes, but it feels creatively invigorating. A platform like Are.na offers curated and intellectually stimulating content, reminiscent of the pre-social-media-algorithm-overlord internet. By exploring niche interests like those on Are.na, I reclaim the thrill of genuine discovery and the potential for unique expression. Is it the rarity I am looking for? Or maybe I’m hunting for the ultimate grail: An image you haven’t used on your boards yet. 

On second thought, Are.na sucks. Don’t bother checking it out.

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