How to find interior design inspiration… when life gets in the way

Did you grow up dreaming of the beautifully designed home you knew you'd live in one day? But then…you did grow up, and now you're a very long way from the sweeping lines, shiny surfaces and sky-lit rooms you thought would be yours.

Like all youthful dreams, our design fantasies tend to take a battering once real life hits. It's difficult to have that tasteful contemporary kitchen you wanted when you have a ton of bright plastic kids' toys around. You can't design your perfect extension when the mortgage is eating up all your cash.

You could just forget about your design desires, at least for the next few years. But if you do that, your home is never going to really feel "you'. Instead, use what you have now and find the inspiration you need to make it yours. It might not be a glass-fronted eco-house in a rural idyll, but it can still be your design canvas, if you want it to be.

Think about what really matters to you

There are about as many ways to get inspired by design as there are people who love design. What is it that gives you that "just right' feeling? Your design preferences probably come from all kinds of sources: things from your childhood home, places you've loved and visited, books you've pored over.

Maybe you take inspiration from nature, from light through the forest leaves or wave patterns on sand. Or from retro wallpapers and fashions, the things your parents and grandparents used and wore. Or you're fascinated by clean lines and contemporary art.

Identify the themes you're drawn to instinctively, and use them to sharpen your mind. If you know you love natural patterns, focus your design efforts on ways to bring those into your home. Something as simple as a little printed wallpaper or a new piece of art might be enough to satisfy your design urges (for a while, at least).

Take inspiration from unexpected things

If looking to the past for inspiration feels like sticking in a rut, start taking notice of new sources of inspiration, and be open to finding those new sources in the most unexpected of places.

As you go about your day, simply make an effort to observe the world around you. You don't have to start thinking what you'll do with your observations. Just make an effort to be a little more aware than usual. This is a trick many writers employ, but designers (whether professional or amateur) can use it too.

What might you notice? Maybe the tables outside a café, the angles of a building, the typography of a newspaper headline or a cloud on a stormy day. Write them down, and come back to them later, when you're at home. They might just give you fresh ideas that will work with the place you have, not the one you used to dream about.

Do anything… except spend time on the internet

It's very tempting to head straight for Google when you're looking for inspiration. It is, after all, full of inspirational blogs and websites. But because you can find anything you want online, it's hard to resist the temptation to look at dream homes, not real homes. Instead, try traditional sources of visual ideas. Go instead to art galleries, libraries and museums (and keep your phone switched off while you're there). 

Think small

If changing the wallpaper is too time-consuming, or putting in a new kitchen too expensive, look for really simple changes you can make that will make you happier with your home. You could pick out a new rug for your living room, replace your kitchen chairs, or get new lampshades for the bedroom. Don't worry about whether everything fits together. Making a small change might just kick off a few more small changes, and over time, they'll start to add up to a gorgeous home that you love.

It's fun to daydream, but sometimes our dreams hold us back. You don't need to give up on having that perfect home, but you don't need to forget all about design until you've got it. Do what you can to make your current home feel like yours, and you might even find your dream home isn't where you always imagined it would be. You might find you're already there.