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Pinterest: Perils, Pitfalls, & Infinite Inspiration

by Taylor Slattery | May 28, 2021

As creatives, reference plays an important role in our process. Collecting references is one of the earliest stages of a project and it helps to shape the framework and inform the rest of our decision-making. The ability to research and collect information on areas we might be unfamiliar with allows us to work with a wider range of clients and results in more compassionate work with a richer sense of understanding.

When it comes to our personal tastes, our choice of reference reflects who we are as people—our unique interests and voice. Our output is only as good as our input, so our ability to access and curate references is an important part of our creative duties.

When it comes to sourcing our reference material, there are a number of different options at our disposal, from digital sources like Google to more analog sources like the library. If the goal is to find something a bit more off the beaten path to separate your work from others, both options provide different routes of getting there.

While there are certainly fewer people in the libraries these days, and books contain a great deal of information that has yet to reach the digital space, when it comes to convenience, the internet can’t be beat. Not only do you not have to leave your home to tap into its knowledge-base but when it comes to content aggregation and pattern analysis, the Dewey Decimal system and the library’s book of the week recommendations crumble before the almighty algorithm.

“The Algorithm” is of course a misnomer, as there is no single algorithm, but it’s a helpful term for discussing each platform’s means of organizing and presenting information to the user. When it comes to collecting references, I’ve yet to find a better tool than Pinterest.

This may be unique to me, but prior to using Pinterest, the name carried a certain whimsical connotation for me. While it’s true the site hosts a wealth of content catered towards moms, like DIY crafts, home decor with motivational phrases, and pictures of outfits for fall, it also contains a wealth of information more useful to creatives.

In a bid to reach wider audiences, it’s common practice for sites to make sharing their content as easy as possible. Usually, this takes the form of a small button for quickly sharing articles or images to other platforms. Perhaps you’ve noticed Pinterest’s logo alongside those of Reddit, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Whatever the reason, Pinterest’s database has grown exponentially over the years and now offers users the means of exploring and discovering just about any niche they can imagine.

It’s organized like a digital rabbit hole, with tunnels connecting seemingly disparate things that can lead to interesting trains of thought and creative decision making. In fact, I think it’s this organization that is key to its success. It’s almost like a game of telephone. Given an input, you never know where you’ll end up.

Users can curate collections specific to their interests and store them with the site, granting them access to their reference library from anywhere via a browser. As users accumulate their collections, Pinterest will refine its suggestions to offer images more closely related to the user’s interests.

This is both incredibly useful, and perhaps Pinterest’s biggest pitfall. While users might initially enjoy having references delivered to their doorstep, rather than having to dig for them themselves, the sheer endlessness of Pinterest’s recommendations can quickly become overwhelming.

If you are particularly vulnerable to FOMO, or the fear of missing out, this constant influx of reference material can be quite intrusive to your process. In the eternal quest for the perfect reference, you might find your research phase stretch out longer and longer as you try to out-scroll Pinterest’s inexhaustible feed of recommendations. This is a battle you can not win.

What’s worse is when Pinterest finds you. There have been times where a Google image search has unintentionally led me back to Pinterest and before I know it, 4 hours have vanished and I have nothing to show for it except a new picture collection of vintage Chinese matchboxes and very dry eyes.

To avoid this situation, it’s best to set up some ground rules and tread cautiously. Set hard time limits for your reference gathering to keep yourself from falling too deep into the algorithm’s pull. Also, only go to Pinterest when you need something or it will be quick to eat your time. Pinterest is a force to be reckoned with. Don’t underestimate the power of Pinterest or overestimate your ability to resist it.


Taylor is the Managing Editor of Notes on Design. Taylor is a graphic designer, illustrator, and Design Lead at Weirdsleep.


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