Commentary / Jon Edwards

The Pitfalls of Influence and Inspiration

There’s something to be said for drawing inspiration from someone else’s work. It can snap you out of a funk or set you on a new track if your work is beginning to get stale and repetitive. You can pull yourself out of the creative doldrums by flipping through the most recent Communication Arts’ annual or browsing through someone’s portfolio. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with seeking inspiration from an outside source in order to grow, evolve and mature.

There is a notable difference, though, between being inspired and replicating ideas without injecting your own mark into the work. There’s a difference between paging through a design gallery in an attempt to jostle your brain into coming up with something new and absorbing someone else’s style and technique. It’s the difference between creating and duplicating.

Unfortunately, it’s become a common problem that continues to make its way throughout the industry, watering down and diluting design in such a way that everything begins to look the same. Fewer and fewer young designers are leaving their mark because most of them are far too busy trying to make their work look as much like their seemingly unified source of inspiration as possible. With the proliferation of CSS galleries, cheap stock resources, which now includes not only photographs, but also illustrations and design elements, the skill and thought that once made good design possible has given way to near-instant gratification that may reflect another’s work, but is nothing more than a plagiarized imitation. The pain-staking craft that once went into typesetting, illustration, layout, color theory, not to mention concept, is now too often, at best, an afterthought with many designers.

To be completely fair, a small part of the problem is born of necessity. Web design trends change at an ever-increasing pace due to improvements in function, code and standards. What may have appeared fresh and cutting-edge only months ago will likely become staid and pedestrian shortly thereafter.

There’s also a certain level of expectation in web design. There’s a natural ebb and flow to all forms of design, but web, in particular, is slightly more fickle in its demanding adherence to trends and fads. Even a uniquely designed site is likely be easily identified as having been created during a particular period of time, possibly down to a specific year. The audience as a whole has been somewhat trained to have these expectations, so it’s difficult for a designer to embark into entirely new territory without receiving a bit of grumbling and hesitation from the client.

But that shouldn’t be an excuse for a lack of originality. Far from it. It’s an ankle-high fence that designers must work within and be aware of rather than a justification to reduce design to look-alikes and photocopies. The safest and easiest method of creation is one that doesn’t require the struggle to actually create. By allowing inspiration to give way to duplication, designers can safely achieve the expected look-of-the day quickly and efficiently. Get it done. Get paid. Move on. It’s understandable why so many would take this approach even though it’s so obviously flawed.

The value of good design should stretch far beyond such a short-sighted solution. As a client, you should expect the designer tasked with creating your work to be capable of delivering something that’s not only effective, but also suitably unique. There’s no point in having the face of your company blend into the background because it was “inspired” by hundreds of other designs that all look nearly identical to one another. Your company, and your dollars, deserve better.

As a designer, it’s time to extend yourself past the point of influence in order to create something based on your own style. Design is effective when it has a voice of its own, not when it fades into the white noise of the imitators. It may be impossible to be entirely original, but it’s necessary to be relentlessly authentic. Design shouldn’t be limited to the tools of the trade. Design isn’t Photoshop or Illustrator, but is instead born from the gray matter between your ears. Each designer’s personal style and vision is what has the potential to make the work meaningful and memorable.