Where do you draw your inspiration from? When does inspiration and imitation go from an extreme form of flattery to a blatant rip-off? If you’re into pop music, you may follow or at least be aware of the ongoing “feud” between Lady Gaga and Madonna. You see, Gaga is a fan of Madonna’s work and career. She grew up listening to her music. She began taking cues from Madonna’s book of publicity and fame by imitating how Madge dresses, how she flirts with controversy and in the past few years, according to Madonna, even how she writes her songs! Madonna went from being flattered to clearly ticked that Lady Gaga patterned her rise to fame after her own because considering Madonna’s been at the top of her game for 30 years and is still relevant, who would want some newbie like Lady Gaga climbing just as quickly to reach that mega-star status?
What does Lady Gaga and Madonna’s spat have to do with design? It’s all about where you draw your own inspiration from. Someone once told me that no idea in design is truly original. As creative, artsy folk, we designers should cringe and feel faint at such a thought. We are creative! Everything we produce is groundbreaking, fresh, new, trend setting. Or … is it? The truth is that we’re all Lady Gaga in a sense, looking at what’s been done, what’s worked well, and have attempted to put our own spin on it.
As a designer, I draw inspiration from far too many sources to make the claim that I’m truly an original. If I’m out and about and see an interesting color combination I mentally log it and will toss it into an appropriate design. If I see an awesome painting I’ll sometimes take elements of what I liked from it and will create an awesome vector from it. As I’m reading a magazine I’ll rip out the layouts that stand out to me or will save the ads that made an impression. Yes, in a way I’m a graphic recycler and if you’re a designer or creative type, so are you!
Look, no one wants to be a Lady Gaga, continually dodging “copy cat” calls or defending the authenticity of our design. At the same time, you can’t be a great designer or creative type without looking at what came before you and making it better. That’s how I’d define graphic design: the art of taking what’s been done a dozen or more times and refreshing it to make it look and feel modern and even better. Consider yourself a DJ and you’ve been handed a standard classic song that people have heard played non-stop on the radio (like, any Adele song). How do you get people to continue to listen to it without growing tired and ill of it? Remix it! Change the beat, change the vibe, give it some new cover art.
Acknowledge those who’ve come before you and where you draw your inspiration from but don’t be afraid to put your own spin on what many may see as an old and tried idea.