Inspiration Vs. Imitation

The other day,  I was searching for a way to represent people in a logo without doing neutered sprites. At some point, I found myself tracing a Paul Rand illustration. Of course I changed little things here and there, but I still thought, this is bad. What if the client chooses this direction and it becomes a final logo, and then someone says, “dude, that looks like Paul Rand’s Westinghouse annual report cover. That’s so lame. What a crappy, derivative designer she is.” Of course the chances of someone connecting the dots in that exact way are unlikely. Also, they were stick figures–it’s not like one person owns them. I did reluctantly show the “Paul Rand inspired” logo, but thankfully, the client didn’t choose that direction. Still, it got me thinking about the the line between inspiration and imitation.

One of my grad school teachers said that copying great designers is a good way to learn. He encouraged us to literally copy layouts that we liked so we could get a feel for how things were constructed. Then we could take those mechanical fundamentals and apply them to our own work. That turned out to be smart advice, and I think that a designer at any level should try it once in a while.

Sometimes I work on things that another designer has created, and my job is to update copy and photos, yet keep the design vibe intact. I love doing this when it’s something like a catalog set entirely in Helvetica with a rigid grid. I would never create something like that on my own, but it totally works—so hey, maybe I can learn a thing or two about hierarchy and structure from this simple production work. I try to keep an open mind.

Back in my advertising days, I worked on a pitch for the first time with a new creative director. We were up against the clock, and he didn’t know what my abilities were, or how stubborn I was yet. So he had me copy the Web 2.0 style of the Jetblue website for a home page that we were presenting. In advertising, pretty much every assignment is quick and dirty, so I didn’t question how lazy this was.

But I’m doing my own thing now, and every project I work on has my name attached to it, so I can’t go around selling Jetblue’s website or Paul Rand icons to my clients. That’d give people the wrong idea. It’d show my clients that it’s ok for them to copy competitor sites or to pull random imagery off of the web and use it for their own purposes. It’d make people think I can’t come up with unique ideas, and that I just re-skin stuff from my design samples folder that’s saved on my desktop (I’ll get to Pinterest eventually). Of course sometimes I do exactly this, but I’d like to think that I’m copying designs that I like in an effort to learn something new.

We all copy. Jim Jarmusch said that nothing is original, and that we shouldn’t bother trying to conceal our thievery. I like this sentiment, but I like it in the way that I like finding articles about how coffee helps stave off Alzheimers, or how drinking wine makes you live longer. Hell no, I don’t feel guilty about creatively stealing or drinking! Except when I do. I want to push myself to see stuff I like and then pack it away in my brain for later. So when I try to recreate that thing from memory, it comes out as my own. Next time I have scruples about a design being too close to someone else’s, I’ll know it’s time to step away from my computer and try something different.