Inspiration And The Creative Code

· December 24th

Inspiration: it can mean so many things. In terms of design, it’s a particularly dangerous word. It is used liberally but few people like to define it because it’s loaded. What exactly is inspiration, and where does it become synonymous with “Plagiarism Lite?” If there’s a project where you’re not sure where to draw the line between inspiration and plagiarism, should you even be considering the current direction?

In my last article, I wrote about what design means to us individually, and why being a designer has nearly universal appeal. In this next article I’m going to again discuss the “why” of design, but from the angle of inspiration.

Over the past number of weeks, I have seen, unfortunately, quite a few cases of ripped or overly ‘inspired’ work. I’ve seen designers featured on blogs, but because of work that was clearly copied from others. I’ve seen work that took an entire element from somebody else’s previously published design. I’ve seen bitter arguments over what is copied and what is simply ‘inspired.’ Sometimes people are too particular and defensive, and the alleged rip was not in fact a copy. Other times, something that was clearly copied continues to be lauded despite protest from the wronged party. Occasionally an “homage piece” is created to piggyback on someone’s popularity. I’ve had email correspondence and Twitter conversations discussing some of these instances, and it has been heavily on my mind as of late. It’s detrimental to the community, detrimental to the industry, detrimental to the individual. It damages our faith in design, and the design lifestyle.

This is by no means a new issue. As long as art and design have existed, plagiarism has crept alongside it in its shadow. Steven Heller just posted on some Paul Rand pieces he found on his trip to Rome — except they aren’t Paul Rand’s! Those defending themselves quote the “great artists steal” mantra, attributed to Picasso. There’s the line spoken by Paul Rand himself, quoting Mies Van der Rohe: “Don’t try to be original; just try to be good.” While there’s more truth in the second line than the first, those using both quotes commonly represent a flawed design mentality. Here we come around to the original thought once again.

Why do we design, after all? It’s about the joy of creation. Design is the opportunity to make things pleasing, to raise our standard of living, aesthetically and functionally. It isn’t about recognition, nor is it about making money. A person may become well known by copying work undetected, or he may gain notoriety because of backlash from the copied work. While one scenario may meet his personal goals — those of making money and achieving recognition — both betray the mentality behind design and the design lifestyle. It no longer is about the joy of creation. Instead, it becomes a rat race in which people are willing to bite each other in order to make it to a vague, subjective finish line. Some professions have a long-standing reputation for being cut-throat — sales, advertising, politics. Design is not among them — yet, and it is up to us to carry on the warm, positive community that design has been.

The ‘creative code’, as it was referred to by one designer in a discussion I had a week or two ago, is unspoken, loosely defined and may mean different things to different people. However, at its core, it means that we are responsible, as creatives, to be exactly that: creative. We do not copy, we do not draw too closely off another’s groundwork. We can learn from others, but must not depend on others. We have historical precedent, and, in the words of Newton, stand on the shoulders of giants, but we must not claim the credit for the work of those on whose shoulders we stand. If there is inspiration, cite it. If it ceases to be about the joy of creation, then we have taken a wrong turn. If it is not creativity, it becomes manufacturing. We cannot betray the profession to which we ascribe.

And there it is: another facet of the “why” of design. Design gives us the chance to give up our dependence on seeking inspiration and instead be an inspiration to others — let us make the most of it!