We’re going to start this out in the most unlikely of places, with Rocky IV. In the movie, Apollo Creed fights Ivan Drago, an up-and-coming super boxer from the Soviet Union. Despite Rocky encouraging his friend to sit the fight out, Apollo goes on to fight Ivan and dies in the ring. Rocky, in an effort to avenge his friend and rebuild America’s collective morale, agrees to fight The Russian on his home turf in Moscow. Rocky arrives in Russia only to find that he is without a training facility. This seeming disadvantage is made out to be even worse when we see that Ivan has access to a state-of-the-art training facility, where he is surrounded by all things boxing, all day, every day. While Ivan is lifting barbells, Rocky is lifting logs.
And while Ivan is wearing revealing shorts on his NordicTrack, Rocky trains by pulling Paulie through the snow. The point is further driven home as we see Rocky battling the elements, venturing into the forest, communing with nature, and overcoming the obstacles it throws his way. In their climactic battle, Droga, having been completely absorbed in his profession, loses to Rocky, the fighter who trained by running with logs and trudging through icy creeks.
Unlike Rocky, we are tasked with creating everything from illustrations to the interaction within a mobile app, and to do so effectively, we must follow Rocky’s cue and be active observers and participants in the world we live in.
This requires us to seek out new experiences, investigate them, pull them apart and put them back together, and figure out what makes them tick. Without maintaining a varied pool of interests and influences, being a responsible designer gets a lot more difficult. Nonetheless, interviews with designers and design articles reveal that many in our profession seek out inspiration from pre-existing design work and the designers that made that work.
Now, this isn’t a new problem. Designers have always imitated and referenced one another, often mimicking the most successful names in an effort to garner some semblance of the same “success”.
Today, inspirational mantras written in delicate script often make the front pages of blogs, where as 20 years ago everyone was chasing the grunge typography that populated the pages of David Carson’s Ray Gun.
During the 60s, design adopted a playful aesthetic, reflecting America’s post war boom by utilizing lots of complimentary colors, namely blue and orange. Fast forward to now, where the same aesthetic is being utilized verbatim, virtually devoid of commentary and concept.
Trends are just part of human nature - people see something cool and think “I want to make that”. But people also want to be liked and will produce work that helps to attain much sought after acceptance.
Unfortunately, this yearning for affirmation has been accelerated by every social site integrating superficial measures of acceptance, be they likes, retweets, or hearts. This only encourages people to make work that has been defined as “successful” by people with particularly large spheres of influence. These false metrics guide their hand more than a yearning for self-exploration or experimentation. And much like an addict craving a fix, designers sit in front of a screen and consume work, gorging on heaps and heaps of indistinguishable pieces on design hubs like Grain Edit, Dribbble, and Designspiration.
As designers, most of our professional work is created to benefit a client. But a small pool of influence leads to a small pool of style. Styles can be personally advantageous but detrimental to clients, who have hired us to help find their unique voice. Not only are designers failing to find their own voice amid the sea of influence, they are failing to give their clients a unique voice.
This brings us to the biggest problem with this self-obsessed mentality: I often see design devolving into a culture of designers designing for other designers. There are almost 314 million people in the United States.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2012 there were 259,500 professional graphic designers in the United States. That might be a lot of designers, but it’s only .0008% of the population.
Design that only references other design work and/or is made solely for other designers is inherently alienating an overwhelming majority of its potential audience. You know, the other 99.9992%.
Now, I’m not suggesting we need to dumb our work down to the lowest common denominator and abandon our visual aspirations. After all, if there’s anything we can agree on, it’s that you can’t please everyone. I’m arguing that such innovations are not necessarily found in the walled gardens of sites like designspiration, dribbble, or pinterest. Instead, they’re found elsewhere, in your other interests - the ones without obvious connections toward design.
I don’t actively seek out inspiration. I can only look at my range of interests and pick apart bits and guess at how those interests may influence my work. I appreciate, in no particular order: comic books, art, video games, science, architecture, space, and Star Wars. These interests never lead me to choose one color over another, favor a particular style, or decide upon round instead of sharp corners. No, these influences do not directly correlate to the aesthetics I employ, but rather change the process behind the work. Caravaggio taught me the importance of lighting, Michelangelo taught me color, and Chuck Close taught me about the almighty grid. Conversely, comics taught me the value of carefully leading viewers through content, and the power of storytelling without words. As people tasked with creating work for international audiences, learning to communicate without language is incredibly important. Video games made me appreciate the organization of complex systems of information. Dead Space made me appreciate contextualizing a user interface within the game’s world. As a result, context is often on my mind when approaching projects. Star Wars probably established my love for little details that converge to make something better than a sum of its parts. Compared to these inspirations that have changed my process, I’ve found aesthetic styles to be the lesser form of influence.
With all of this in mind, we must be careful not to let our process become a closed loop, where work isn’t informed by the world it should be trying to improve. Like Rocky, we must remember that to succeed within our own profession have to be active participants and observers outside of it. An unwillingness to draw inspiration from outside our community narrows our creative vision, and if we can’t see beyond our own nose, we’ve failed. Ultimately, design is for everyone and should be influenced by everything. The design community may be small, but the the Universe is virtually infinite, and it’s our job to use it and design a better world.