I guess the seeds for imagination are things you have seen... sometimes related, sometimes not. For me, I draw inspiration from other ppl's tanks, terrestrial gardens and natural "landscapes". Also, some of my own accidental designs that turn out unexpectedly well.
Sometimes the idea is triggered when I find a particularly interesting piece of rock or driftwood at the LFS. I caught the driftwood/rock hoarding bug recently.
At the moment, I have a very nice piece of wood sitting around waiting for a good scaping plan. This piece is unique in that I probably have to get a tank specially made to fit it rather then try to fit in a particular (standard) tank. I've finally decided on using it for a new terrarium for my chinese firebelly newts. The next step is designing the tank... I'm planning on building in a sump filter cum waterfall... after I find a place to put it.
At the same time, I'm agonising over a new layout for my 6ft planted arowana tank. She's getting bigger and I need to rescape to give her more space. I've been browsing thru Amano's Nature Aquarium book series, the ADA 2003, 2004 catalogs, ADA Korea/Japan's tank galleries, AGA's and AB's competition galleries and other websites for ideas. Unfortunately, most tanks are "planted to the brim". :!:
I usually start of setting down a focus point or two in the form of a rock or piece of driftwood, and then start to work from imagination from there. This has been my usuall way of doing things the last year of so. But, now I start to form a desing in my mind, and I have startet to look for pieces of wood or rock that will fitt the aquascape I have in mind. I'm currently working on a setup using petrified wood, glosso and hairdgrass. Been collecting pieces for this design for a coulpe of months now. Hopefully it will be ready in the next few weeks
I use a lot of different sources for my aquascaping layouts:
1) Nature, just looking around at what's around you. How can you recreate that same feeling? Right now, I am working on two layouts both with specific themes. One is spring and one is autumn. You need some imagination for recreating the 'aura' that you are trying to convey.
2) Other people's layouts (especially Amano). I don't outright copy any designs, but it's okay to borrow some elements like noting how two plants intergrow into one another in the foreground or an original use of hardscaping you've never thought of before. It's no use trying to reinvent the wheel.
3) Designing/working with the hardscaping I have. I sketch each piece of wood I have in my sketch book and try to draw an aquascape around it. I have a plan in my mind this way. When I go into the tank, I may change and switch around a few elements but the basic idea is still there. Sketching layouts beforehand saves a lot of time. When you tackle a tank with no plan beforehand, it is much more difficult. Designs may come out "forced" because of time constraints.
Relax. Plan your layouts a month beforehand, play around with it in the tank, etc. Let creativity flow freely from your mind instead of forcing yourself to come up with an idea within a predetermined amount of time.
Remember that your hardscaping doesn't have to be perfect the first time around (especially as the plants grow in). You may have to adjust different pieces of wood or tweak the plantings a bit to get it just right.
I do not think it is possble to not using examples from Pictures. Or nobody's tank would look like a nature aquarium. I'll admit i get great idea from looking at people pictures. But i like to use Driftwood and rocks a lot. Sometimes you have to do things different because your driftwood is so weird.
The lone copier! Of course i modify them a little, substitutions, slight layout changes, etc. but for the most part i imitate what i like.... due to the fact i'm a beginner. (i don't have any intention on entering these setups in a contest of course).
I watched the AGA DVD last night - the awards presentation part - and heard the comment on the sustainability of the long-leafed plants in your aquarium, Tony. I have to say, I did not agree with the comment.