Inspiration Kills

If you’re a designer, you probably visit sites known as inspiration galleries. These are the sites showcasing the best designs from around the web–websites, logos, interfaces… When stuck in the creative block, browsing these galleries helps you find new ways of doing things or be inspired by a particularly clever way a designer has implemented something. They’re also just fun to browse, you see what everyone else is doing and enjoy the best executions.

I think though that there is a darker side to inspiration galleries. This darker side is the thing that sucks up your imagination and fills the gaps with other people’s work. You see, when you’re stuck in the creative block and browse such galleries, the first thing that happens is that you notice stuff that you like from other designs–you’re finding ways to solve your problem using other people’s work. Their implementation now takes over your imagination and you begin to think of the solution in terms of that implementation. You’re no longer thinking outside the box, you’re thinking inside a box defined by somebody else.

However great other people’s designs are, by following their lead you surrender your opportunity to innovate and create original work. Many designers like to browse inspiration galleries and take bits and pieces of different designs they like, combining them into their own work. It’s not copying of course, they implement these things in their own way.

Yes, they can pull off a great job and mould these borrowed elements into one–something integrated that works as a whole–but oftentimes these things just don’t match and so we’re left with a mild case of Frankenstein’s monster. In their rush to get inspired, the designer forgets to visit their own imagination and see what it has to offer. Rather than coming up with one theme or idea from which the design should flow, they collect bits and pieces from the outside and try to glue them together.

Of course you cannot, and probably shouldn’t, begin with nothing. You’ll always find inspiration–a better word would probably be: ideas–from the outside, from nature and, yes, other people’s work. That’s good. Heck, I even run my own gallery site. But to rely on these things as an inspiration crutch is the wrong way to go. It’s just too easy to copy–too easy to imitate. Even if you improve on what others have done, you still won’t be coming up with something original.

Some will argue that nothing is ever original, just combinations and re-implementations of other things. Even if that’s true, you could still strive to be more original than everybody else. You could strive to come up with something fresh–something unchained from the old ways of doing things. You could strive to create work that has its own character and flow, work that was designed from the ground up around an idea, rather than glued together from a myriad of pieces.

If you do go out to seek inspiration, don’t look for it in the usual places, the countless galleries and showcases displaying work of your fellow designers. Going this route will ensure your originality gets killed. Look for it elsewhere, in nature and in designs unrelated to your subject.

When the designers of Apple’s OS X operating system were working on the Aqua interface, they didn’t look at what other people have done with the look. They looked at things that were the opposite of a computer: liquid, jelly beans, ice–something refreshing and fun, something that didn’t remind you of a computer. Inspired by these things they went ahead to implement the Aqua interface, as well as the transparent and colorful cases for the first batch of new iMacs, eMacs and iBooks. The interface and hardware looked fresh, original and interesting. Not only did it look great, it helped Apple’s products stand out from what all the competition was doing–it made business sense.

You’ve got a choice: lead or follow. Why follow?

May 2010