Develop a few simple habits that attune you to design in the world around you.

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The question I get the most from my online audience: "Where do you get your project ideas?" Fortunately, in my job as a remodeling contractor and professional woodworker, I am exposed to all manner of designs, which allows me to soak up creativity from other professionals. But I believe that inspiration and answers to our design challenges are all around us. So even if you are not in the trades, here are some things you can do to sharpen your own design senses.

Always carry a camera 

If you have a cell phone, you're already doing this. If not, today's point-and-shoot digital cameras are powerful, inexpensive, and very portable. Take one along at all times to record forms and elements that inspire, such as the parking structure shown below. Then, organize your photos by category, such as "architectural," "nature," etc., on your computer so you're not left straining your brain searching for a vaguely recalled image.

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Inspired in part by the shape of a parking garage he photographed, Todd's Prairie Chandelier was featured in the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Montana.

Though he's had no formal training, professional woodworker Todd Clippinger (above) attributes his success to a lifelong learning spree. Fortunately for the rest of us, he also shares what he learns at americancraftsmanworkshop.com.

Start a sketchbook

As inspiration hits you, get it on paper as soon as possible. Don't get hung up on details, or worry that you can't draw well; just get the basic geometric forms scratched out and work on details later. Let the ideas flow without self-critique or editing. Allow one idea to beget another. Variations on a theme may ultimately lead to a left-field design that surprises you. Be sure to revisit your photos and sketches occasionally. Often new ideas arise out of old ones.

Get out and explore

I find that both nature and the man-made world provide lots of inspiration. My wife and I enjoy going for hikes, and we often find a natural, abstract arrangement of trees or rock formations interesting. Or we'll go walking in different neighborhoods or other parts of town and just absorb the details of the architecture.

Attend open houses

Many towns have a "parade" of new or vintage homes. Attend these to familiarize yourself with various styles of architecture and home decor. At the very least, you will discover which elements you like and don't like. Actively spark design ideas by asking yourself which furniture or built-ins would work well in the settings.

Seek out more art and artists 

Today's art culture is less pretentious and more accessible than ever. Studying the work of other artists—painters, sculptors, architects, even other woodworkers—will both challenge and energize your design senses. Remember, most disciplines of art and design are related because they all exercise arrangements of balance, proportion, color, and texture.