The simple act of looking at other people’s work can be inspiring and useful.

Recently, I was asked to be one of the judges of a journalism competition sponsored by the American Society of Business Publication Editors. I was given the “News” category. Though I had volunteered for the task, my heart sank when I saw the huge pile of magazines that needed to be scored. It would take a whole weekend, and I wondered why I had agreed to participate.

But then I began to read. Some of the magazines were awful — and I quickly learned how frustrating it is to try to understand a chart that’s poorly designed, or stay interested when the writing style is as dry as Melba toast.

I also noticed that a few of the publications with news on their covers made it difficult to tell which story went with which photo. Yikes, I thought, picturing Pool & Spa News. We face similar challenges. I immediately decided to label our images differently, and started with this issue. (Please do me a favor and look at our cover. E-mail me if you think the photo of the pool seems to be related to the “California Stings” story that appears next to it.)

Many magazines in the competition were wonderful. Civil Engineering did a great job making descriptions of local projects interesting and relevant to readers. I wrote down some of their tricks. Truckers News published a study of which cities have the most courteous drivers (Minneapolis, Nashville) and which have the least (Miami, Phoenix). Is this information earth-shattering for truckers? No. But it could be helpful, and certainly was a fun read, sandwiched between rising gas prices and insurance costs. I took more notes.

All this is my way of suggesting that you pay close attention when looking at any pool and spa project. Focus on the details. Incorporate what you like into your own work. Is there an original use of tile? A radius that pleases the eye? Conversely, if something is jarring, take a mental inventory to see if you are guilty of the same problem. The white skimmer lid that jumps out of someone else’s dark tan deck will have the same effect if it’s on your project as well.

I’m so glad I spent the time with those other magazines. It was a great learning experience that I will take with me into future issues of Pool & Spa News. But you don’t have to be appointed judge to reap those benefits. All you have to do is think like one.