Every successful designer realizes the importance of a well-crafted, professional, off- and online persona. That involves having a polished resume and c.v., business cards, and a portfolio of creative work.
Research and planning are the first steps to take before designing anything. Not only is it inspirational but it also provides insight into how other people approach the task. Inspiration can come directly from seeing the kind of work you are doing: looking at resumes when writing a resume, portfolios when creating a portfolio, and so on. The advantage is that it lets you identify trends, common elements, how people structure their work. Seeing what the competition is doing is great. Let’s take online portfolios, for example. The fun and creative sites as well as the unexciting ones are fairly consistent in their sections, with an about section, project list, a contact form, client list. There navigation is usually at the top or left. Knowing what’s been done gives you an opportunity to find a fresh approach and be a little unique. However, it wouldn’t be wise to try to be very different from the established norm. Conventions are popular for a reason.
Aside from using amazing competitors’ work as inspiration, there are also other ways to spark the imagination. Magazine spreads can be great to look at, as are lists of great typography and calligraphy. Flipping through an art history book or seeing some museum exhibits can be a good experience. There are so many sources of great art and design work from many different fields.
The other thing to keep in mind while designing things for yourself is to keep different pieces related to each other. Business cards, portfolio, resume and c.v. – and any other things designed for oneself – should all look good together. They are all part of one package and therefore have to be consistent.
Don’t Make Me Think! A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability – Steve Krug (book) a bit more information on usability, conventions and how people use the web.