Looking for design inspiration is both an active and ongoing process. But I didn’t always think so.
I have a four-year-old bone to pick with one of my design professors. I can’t remember which one, I can’t remember the project this associates with, but I do remember the bone and the reason behind it. And, of course, that I’m still peeved 4 years later.
Perhaps some backstory will help:
One day back in college as a starry-eyed VisCom major, I was handing in a homework assignment. Like most assignments, it was a layout and design project of sorts. My professor glanced at the piece, and looked back at me.
“What are your sources?” she asked.
Taken aback, I responded, “Uhh…I thought this was supposed to be an original piece.”
“It was,” she gave me a stern glare, “I meant your sources of inspiration.”
I thought for a moment, staring at my abstract piece. The answer, to me, was obvious, “Definitely Jackson Pollock.”
“He’s not a designer. You must be influenced by designers.” My professor accepted my homework, turned, and walked off to lecture the class. I believe I made the silent outline of “WTF?!” in her wake.
Then, in my naive early-20’s I was baffled by her un-acceptance of my answer because I had not cited a famous graphic designer. Now, in my wizened mid-20’s…I am still baffled by her un-acceptance of my answer. True, designs influence future designs. True, we need to be aware of our contemporaries, peers, rivals, and the design gods who have come before us. Untrue, that for every project, every time, we need to cite a recognized industry leader to validate our own work.
More accurately, we only need to cite an influence – any influence – and give solid reasoning behind it for it to hold water. Design or no design, Milton Glaser or Milton and his beloved Swingline stapler. In the “real world” they spoke of so much in college, no one is following you around, harping on the importance of citing valid influences. People are following you around, harping on you to meet deadlines. In the end what influences you is only important to, well, YOU.
Finding Innovation in the Familiar
We are influenced every day, by practically everything around us. In a pinch, are we jumping on Google, frantically looking up design or marketing peers to see what new innovation they have come up with? NO! We are looking to the things we are comfortable and familiar with to draw inspiration.
I would also like to point out that influence can happen at any stage of the process. You can be influenced by a way in which to do things, or a manner of thinking, just as easily as you can be influenced by the look of something. While my inner 21-year-old self would like to meet up with my professor and emphatically tell her, “Stick that in your pipe and smoke it!” I’ll instead offer up two personal examples:
I’ve practiced yoga for years. As someone always in a hurry to get somewhere or accomplish something, I find the change of pace grounding. For 30-60 minutes each session, I am asked to just breathe and enjoy the moment. Well, “enjoy” might be a stretch, since yoga is a series of (usually) uncomfortable poses designed to make the task of mentally doing nothing a challenge. You are forced to be aware of the challenge to do nothing.
That challenge, actually, is the one thing I take away from my yoga practice. With each new campaign or marketing piece, there is an underlying challenge we are asked to solve for the client. Instead of wildly free-versing my way through the entire brainstorming process, the awareness of that challenge stays present. Yoga, as an influence, affects the process, which in turn will affect the final result.
On the other side of the spectrum, I also love cartoons. If Saturday mornings were anything like they were when I was a kid, I would be hard-pressed to do something “productive” between the hours of 8 and 12 each week. Well, more hard-pressed than I am currently.
In particular, Pixar is my main source of inspiration, especially when I am working on a web project. Pixar has a wonderful way of layering basic shapes to form very complex imagery – and leaving evidence of those original shapes visible in the final result. At first glance, the pictures on the screen look to be terribly complicated, and they are. But, you can also distinguish the simple circles and squares the animators used to make up that shape. Cartoons, as an influence, affect the product, and are visually present in the final result.
Both true forms of influence, and both perfectly acceptable answers to the question. Now, I want to know: Who or what influences the work you do?
And, no worries, your answer can in no way reduce your final grade for the semester.