Graphic Design Will Eat Itself

April 11th, 2012 by Mat Dolphin

Like any industry, design is a bit incestuous. We know you, you know us. Together we know so-and-so. If we haven’t met face to face (which is oddly the rarity these days) we’ve no doubt ‘met’ on the net or conversed via Twitter — the goto hub for conversation. Our friendship circles are tight and everyone knows and talks to the same people. Views sometimes but rarely differ and before you realise it you’re in an echo chamber of thought and opinion with lots of nodding heads (one of the reasons we now rarely attend industry ‘get-togethers’ — controversial, but true).

This circle of people who think the same thing is not necessarily a good thing and something that got us thinking about the knock on effect to design and everyone’s work.

Put simply, design is all about ideas. Creative, brilliant and original ideas. To come up with these ideas, designers need inspiration, which can and should come in a number of forms. The seed of an idea could be planted by hearing a snippet of a conversation, seeing a painting in a gallery, watching the news or reading a book. However, waiting around for the creative lightening bolt to strike can take time, and time is a luxury that most designers simply don’t have. Deadlines loom, clients chase and sooner or later, the ideas need to be coaxed out from somewhere.

Visual inspiration sites such as Ffffound and Designspiration can be really helpful to aid this coaxing. There are a few similar sites about, but Ffffound seems to be the most well known and widely used. For the uninitiated, it’s a ridiculously simple site on which users (only those with a Ffffound invite) can upload any images they want. Graphic design, photography, art, animated GIFs, pretty much anything goes. The unwritten rule is that it should be at least a bit inspiring.

And generally it works, it’s a great place for creative types to show off amazing new ideas they’ve come up with or discovered elsewhere. On the whole, we love it. What’s not to love?

Well, there is one thing… The problem is that it’s used by a huge number of designers who upload things for other designers to look at. These designers often get inspired by what they see and want to create ‘their own version’. So they do, and it looks great, so they upload it to Ffffound. And the cycle continues, endless waves of trends seem to sweep over the site, starting with one great idea, which is eventually swamped in a huge number of derivatives and variations on a theme.

We’ve spoken before about the importance of taking inspiration from sources other than design, and we still feel it’s something that’s hugely important. Sites like Ffffound don’t crush creativity, they promote it and provide a brilliant platform. But the design community, incestuous as it is, does need to take care not to take too much inspiration from the same places, be they websites or peers. If what we do is largely about ideas and original thinking, surely it’s worth looking beyond the realms of our little world and taking inspiration from as many different places as possible?

The alternative? Graphic Design Will Eat Itself.

Or maybe we’re wrong? There’s a very fine line between inspiration and copying what you see on a website or in a magazine. Do you take inspiration from these places? Or are they just nice to look at? Is anyone brave enough to admit they’ve been a bit cheeky with the word inspiration and ‘recycled’ someone else’s idea? Maybe you follow all the same people on Twitter too and agree with the point?

What do you think? Naturally we’re aware the very mention of this topic could create further Inception levels of industry nodding, but let us know, we promise we won’t nick your opinion…

Ffffound can be ffffound here, Designspiration can be found here. We strongly advise checking them out (but peruse with caution…)

Thanks for reading,

Tom and Phil

8 Responses to “Graphic Design Will Eat Itself”

  1. Design has always done this. And always will. People iterate, copy, clone and remaster. The phrase “the bad artist imitates, the brilliant ones steal” comes to mind.

    Now, more than ever, there’s a richer, more diverse and programmable opportunity for designers to seek inspiration online and this this can be a good thing.

    Comment by Liam — April 11th, 2012 @ 2:11 pm |
  2. Personally I try to avoid design trends through my desire to create unique work. However, like you say, just being subjected to these trends in the first place actively affects my work (Be it small layout choices to entire campaign direction)

    I’m consciously attempting to become inspired through places other than twitter, ffffound etc. It does help the ideas flow to go out and about to become inspired.

    Is worth a read too… Kind of summarises how I’ve been trying to work recently. (When I’m not stuck behind a computer screen)

    Comment by James Duffield — April 11th, 2012 @ 2:40 pm |
  3. ffffound is great if you are looking for mild porn… sadly I don’t get to use this ‘inspiration’ in my mood boards!

    The sites are great, but read a book once in a while, take a walk down the street, or even go to a strip club, anything that isn’t looking at a fucking screen…

    Comment by Jo — April 11th, 2012 @ 2:47 pm |
  4. A few years ago I was in my second interview at a well-known London design agency chatting away with one of their Creative Directors. Suddenly, the door swings open and the other CD marches in (completely ignoring me, by the way) with a beautiful design book from Paris. Straight away he flicks to various pages suggesting to his partner how they could “use” (rip off) those ideas for their various clients. My chin completely dropped to the floor. Were they for real? Unfortunately, yes.

    William Ralph Inge’s quote “originality is undetected plagiarism” sums up, what I think, is happening throughout our industry. But, the older and more experienced we get, the more we know “what’s been done before” and we can, therefore, challenge ourselves in different ways.

    We all know the phrase “there is no such thing as a new idea” Sure; most ideas have been done before. However, I prefer to see originality as the new ‘combination of ideas.’ By creating these new combinations, mixed with technological innovation, I believe there is always room to improve old ideas, bring back trends, and create new and wonderful things.

    For those who know me, they know I am an ambassador for getting away from your computer (not only for health reasons), but getting out there, seeing and experiencing, getting to the heart of the problem, thinking laterally and drawing more, will ultimately help create original work.

    Someone has probably just said everything I have said.

    Comment by Jenny Theolin — April 11th, 2012 @ 3:10 pm |
  5. You make a really good point – inspiration is needed, that’s a fact of life – but caution not to take inspiration from the same source over and over again is a risk for the time-poor designer.

    Comment by Sian — April 11th, 2012 @ 4:08 pm |
  6. Whilst I do agree with your post I do think it is worth pointing out that it is not a new thing. If you look at Art history there are clear movements (e.g. Renaissance) which have had a massive impact on art creating a change in approach/culture etc. By default people need to draw inspiration and if they are drawing it from beautiful things whether it is a Mountain Scenery or a painting there is lots to learn from it. The focus should sometimes be more on how you use the inspiration rather than using it the first place. As artists we would like to think that people enjoyed out new creations and the ultimate proof of that would be a new trend based on your work … The person doing the creation really nows if they are evolving ideas or blatantly copying for the sake of a deadline.

    Comment by Anthony Luxton — April 12th, 2012 @ 9:51 am |
  7. Two quotes came straight to mind upon reading this (I suspect the first one’s been referenced above already but the link is down).

    “Don’t look for inspiration in design books. Don’t sit at your computer, waiting for lightening to strike. If the job is for a dry cleaner, go to a dry cleaner. And stay there until you have something that you honestly think is interesting to say about dry cleaning.” – Bob Gill

    “The great thing about graphic design is that it is almost always about something else.” – Michael Bierut

    As a design student in the late 90s I was so in love with the work of The Designer’s Republic. All their work, that almost edible vector driven deconstructed modernism was so consistently, unmistakably theirs, and to my eyes it was the very definition of cool.

    For various reasons, my own youthful obnoxious belligerence and irritating lack of talent being just two, I never found my way into what I considered the ‘Design Industry’. Quite what I imagined day to day life entailed in this ‘Design Industry’ I’m now not really sure, but it definitely involved trendy bars, quirky hot women and everyone driving Saab 96s and Vespas set to a soundtrack of a kind of chilled hip hop fused with Latin jazz on well worn vinyl. Of the work, if I had to bother myself with such a tedious distraction, I’d probably have said it would be ‘cool’.

    I originally chose to study design because I love communication, but for a while along the way I got distracted. I forgot about the actual job and got sucked into that attractive idea that it’s cool to be a designer, to be a culture creator. And I spent a few years quite bitter that upon graduation I wasn’t immediately part of an in-crowd.

    But looking back, to that TDR work I so admired and to the imaginary cool crew I so longed to be a part of, it now all seems so masturbatory. We designers aren’t here to satisfy ourselves and shape the world into what we want. We’re here to answer briefs on behalf of clients. How can a studio therefore be that proud of having a house style? Surely the moment it does that it has failed? Can any designer really believe one solution fits all?

    You’re exactly right, for an industry that prides itself on being open minded, it so often manages to be so embarrassingly inward looking. We’re all looking to each other for inspiration, as you say, and it means trends come along, get a foothold and spread like a virus for which the only cure seems to be The Next Thing.

    The current ’stacked and justified’ thing has enjoyed such a bafflingly long run, from home made wedding invites right through to mainstream media, that you’d think the industry had finally found the one true way to design all things. But it hasn’t, it’s just found another one true way it currently likes to do things, for a bit, until somebody comes along and actually innovates (or recycles) in a way the rest are compelled to follow. And then nobody will touch ’stacked and justified’ with a barge pole.

    It’s funny. Fashions, trends come and go in all walks of life, so it seems odd to say that graphic design should be any different. But I can’t help thinking we designers require a more open mind than is possible when too much attention is paid to the changing trends.

    It’s certainly not helped by those designers who think the real client is their portfolio, and the paying client exists only to fund their journey up the design career ladder. It’s heartbreaking to watch those designers able to simply push the right buttons at the right time move on while true creatives I’ve admired, those that consider their work and try always to offer something more are overlooked.

    Personally, and I’ll bet I’m far from alone, I’m having a bit of a crisis in that my portfolio isn’t in any way reflecting the creative work I’m doing. It’s a nightmare when trying to convince potential clients of one’s worth, but that’s what happens when the needs of the client come before your own. It’s my problem, not theirs, and my professional responsibility is to solve theirs.

    We’re all our own harshest critics, and I’d say only the most unrealistically arrogant and self impressed can see their own work with the same appreciative eyes as everyone else. For me this means I’m never happier than when the end result looks like something I wouldn’t do. The easiest way to achieve this aim is to make it look like another designer did it; to make it look not like something little old I bodged out, but like something a ‘proper’ designer would do. Which means copying what the industry does. It’s a tempting solution to the problem of self doubt, and it’s one we should all resist.

    Perhaps if the corporate world could be a more forgiving of mistakes we’d be less scared to make them, but of course it isn’t and never will be so we’re encouraged/required to stay safe. So, what’s the rest of the design world doing? Right, that obviously works, let’s do that. Ffffound, was it?

    Perhaps the smart way to find where the really interesting stuff is happening is to find what everyone in the design industry is talking about, and list it under “ignore”. Perhaps we designers need to listen to Groucho a little more often;

    “I wouldn’t want to be part of any club that would have me as a member”.

    But we love clubs, we love to feel wanted, we love and need the support of our peers. Certain parts of human nature, our grouping instinct is at odds with creativity. I suppose it’s what makes the spark so special when it comes along; it ensures that those truly able to break the mould are few and far between. And the rest of us just make the numbers up.

    Comment by sprungseven — April 12th, 2012 @ 11:28 am |
  8. This is a large part of why I setup – it’s an online community to help inspire creatives by giving a one word brief each week to work on. Members of the site can then upload what they have created which then helps to inspire others to create something too.

    GotBrief is all about your own personal interpretation of the brief, when you see the word it will instantly make you think of something (even if it’s “I don’t know what that means”) which can then lead onto a more developed idea. It’s about creating something new & exploring your creativity.

    Comment by Thomas Davis — April 12th, 2012 @ 12:44 pm |

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