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What’s In Your Swipe File?

What is a swipe file?

Also known as a scrap file or morgue file, a swipe file is used by creatives of all types to collect, sort and store bits of inspiration. A swipe file is where you collect ideas, notes, and images to ignite your creativity. It is an immediate source for research and idea generation.

Why keep a swipe file?

Creators should be collectors. Because as creators we need to think bigger than ourselves, we must make use of the ideas of others to fuel our own vision. Swipe files are just the thing to help you generate ideas. They are especially useful because they are full of content you’ve already curated, so you know what you have on hand. You organize your swipe file in a way that works for you, so that you can locate items quickly.

You can defeat creative block by rummaging through a swipe file. Marelisa Fabrega of recommends visiting your swipe file every day, not just when you’re woking on a project. When you’re tired or are simply having trouble coming up with amazing ideas, a search through your swipe file primes your thinking and creative problem-solving.

Curation leads to creation.

Curation is the act of selecting, organizing and managing items in a collection. Curation is not adding things to a junk drawer, but involves deliberately classifying and organizing things. When you curate, you collect things that are meaningful to you, and which, potentially, you can share with others as relevant content and inspiration. You curate with the intention of pooling ideas you can combine and you improve upon in your own work.

Keeping a swipe file is curating. You collect visuals, tips, examples, notes, headlines, photos, etc., and organize them in some way so that you can easily look up a topic or subject. Ideas spark more ideas. The more mature your collection is, the more ideas and inspiration sources you have to draw from.

I began my swipe file while I was still in school. It was a practice that was encouraged by all my instructors and required by some, and was considered invaluable for idea generation. At that time I kept my file in two 2-drawer metal cabinets and was constantly pulling images from magazines, newspapers and junk mail to add to my collection. For one class assignment we were asked to bring in several unrelated images and create an illustration during class using all the images as a source.

Be choosy about what you swipe. In other words, don’t acquire just to acquire. Swipe with a purpose. Everything you collect should have a reason why you’re collecting it. What you swipe will be different from what others swipe. When you see something that gets your attention, for whatever reason, add it to your file.

Creation is the process of bringing something into being.

To create anything, we need ideas to generate ideas. There really is nothing new under the sun. But there are new combinations and surprising takes on what already exists. A swipe file contains the seeds of fresh, new work and innovation. We create to inspire others. We create to improve our quality of life. We create to enjoy the process. We swipe for the same reasons.

What should go into your swipe file?

Photos, ads, drawings, emails, junk mail… pages from magazines, cool designs? Are you struggling to master a design principle? Look for examples of that principle in use and add them to your collection. Do you want to improve your drawing ability? Swipe other drawings and images to observe and copy (to practice. No infringing of copyrights, okay). Do you want to understand IR photography? Swipe images and articles on the topic.

Anything you like. Anything that captures your attention. Anything that makes you want to know more or take a second look.

One way for visual creatives to generate new ideas is to collect words, phrases quotes and other pieces of writing that are interesting. What images to words conjure? How are those words designed in the piece that you swiped? Written language is visual, after all.

I keep a collection of work by artists and designers who inspire my work: Alphonse Mucha, Maxfield Parrish, Drew Struzan, Michael Hague, David Lance Goines, William Morris, Bob Peak, Thomas Blackshear, Don Weller, Jan Tschichold.

Sources for swiping.

You don’t need to do much to begin a swipe file. Curate-able content is as close as your email inbox. Advertisements, promotional emails, newsletters, and announcements can be easily saved into folders that you set up in Gmail or Apple Mail.

Another source is your digital photo library. In Apple’s iPhoto you can title and tag (add keywords) your images as well as set up albums labeled by topic.


Repinning content curated by others on Pinterest is a form of swiping.

Other sources for swipe files include your mailbox, image searches, blogs, Flickr and Tumblr.


Where to keep your swipe file.

Analog options include your sketchbook, file folders in file cabinets, a common book, a notebook, storage boxes, photo albums and scrapbooks.

Applications include email folders, Evernote, Photos, folders on your computer, Dropbox or Google Drive.

Some online options to check out: fffound, Pinterest, Flickr, Tumblr, Swiped, and Gimmebar.

Whenever you feel you’ve run dry of ideas, take a break. Get some fresh air. Then open up your swipe file and simply browse. You never know what will connect and all of a sudden you have tons of ideas. Be sure to capture all those ideas into a sketchbook or notebook, or in your swipe file. Christopher Penn, a writer, suggests sorting swipe file content by the kind of content that you generally struggle to create.

When you have your very own swipe file, you are never out of ideas. You simply need to make use of what you have at your fingertips. Another thought: Are you creating swipe-worthy stuff?

Your turn:
Do you have a swipe file? What are your best tips for starting one, or for managing it? Share in the comments below.

Alvalyn Lundgren

Alvalyn Lundgren is the founder and principal of Alvalyn Creative, an independent consultancy providing brand strategy design and bespoke illustration for more than 30 years. She is the creator of Freelance Road Trip — a business school and podcast for creative freelancers. She teaches design and design practice on the college level with design schools and programs.

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