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Inspiration and Imitation: A Note For Beginners
10-Jan-2012

Last week Tara and I shared our inspiration boards with you and how we reveal them along the way on our projects, way before they are complete. Lots of designers and creators want you to pay no mind to the man behind the curtain, but we like being transparent about what influences us. And what influences us could be anything from other design trends to interiors to fashion to photography. So that opens up another conversation about inspiration-gathering. Though we’ve spent years and years honing our craft, our creative process doesn’t exist in a vacuum and we are inspired by outside trends.  But when does inspiration cross the line into imitation and how do you avoid it?

We have worked with a lot of students and new designers who have a hard time finding the balance between inspiration, imitation, and their level of taste vs. their skills. Here is our advice to them. But mind you, if you’ve been working for years as an inhouse creative where you have to go out and hunt and kill your own inspiration, or even in an agency where perhaps imitation is a big no-no and a constant worry – these tips might help as well:

1. What do you like?
From color combinations your obsessed with to artists and authors you admire - it’s important to identify what you like. (We think Pinterest is a great tool for gathering these things.)

2. Why do you like them?
Once you figure out what you like determine why. Find common threads and uncover patterns. Stare at a composition of a beautifully designed room or a badass layout design and break it down into it’s elements. Identify the colors, textures, scale, grid and typography and then mentally piece them back together to see how the whole piece was created.

3. Practice by imitating.
We think it’s okay to imitate. I spent a good amount of my time in design school pretending like I was David Carson and Art Chantry. Should you post these pieces in your online portfolio? Probably not. But emulation can be a great way to hone your craft.

4. Find inspiration elsewhere.
When you limit your sources of inspiration you run the risk of becoming a copy cat. You will start to find your style when you diversify your influences. And don’t limit your sources of inspiration to within your industry either.

Mind the Gap: Your Skill Level vs. Your Taste
5. Mind the Gap
Ira Glass, public radio host of This American Life, has this great quote on the creative process for beginners:
“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you...”  

And that takes us right to the 10,000 hour rule.

6. Practice for 10,000 hours.
I recently read Malcom Gladwell’s Outliers and had a major “a-ha” moment when he said it takes 10,000 hours to become successful at any given task. A big part of becoming a master at your craft and creating your own style is to practice. If you don’t quit before 10,000 hours you’ll start feeling more comfortable with your craft.

Here are a few other really great reads about inspiration and imitation:
• Jessica Hische has a very articulate post on inspiration vs. imitation - a must read for every student and designer (new and old) out there.
• Becka Robinson at Life As An Artispreneur prefers to shut herself off from outside influences to avoid the risk of unintentional imitation.  
Erin Loechner talks about the fine line between imitation and inspiration on Decor8.

What are your thoughts on inspiration and imitation? Any advice for young designers or students?

FILED UNDER: Braid How-To's, Student Creatives
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