Design Thievery / by David Sherwin

In my very first days as a fledgling graphic designer, in love with the potent combination of Emigre and Ray Gun that my high school literary magazine editor had foisted upon me, I combed through the local bookstore for anything that could explain to me, in a nutshell, all of the skills I'd need to learn to become a graphic designer. 

I found plenty of Graphis Annuals, back issues of Communications Arts, and a number of books that recounted the history of graphic design. What I really dreamt of, in those days, was a book that could teach me everything that I'd need to know to design a logo, create a typeface from scratch, put together an annual report, art direct a photo shoot. You name it, I wanted to know how to do it well.

Much to my surprise, such a book did not exist. Twenty years later, such a book still does not exist. And that book never will.

It took me long into my career to learn the following: The only way to learn your best process for doing graphic design work is to do graphic design work.

Or, more specifically, you need to learn the accumulation of individual skills and talents that make up your favored design discipline, and then hone them until they're almost unconscious in their presence, and then practice them at your peak.

Bookstores nowadays are cluttered with monographs and catalogs of all types of design work. Such books are treasure troves of inspiration for designers, illuminating other designer's processes and their special ways of polishing their ideas into killer executions. They're going to give you new ways of thinking about the work and the raw fuel to push you in new directions to come up with better solutions in the future.

But they aren't really going to teach you how to be a better designer.

Wait — doesn't reading design books make you a better designer? Doesn't it help you come up with better solutions? All these people that I read about are success stories. I can climb on their shoulders, glean their brilliance, and design the sleekest mousetrap around.

Well, the short answer is: Reading design books can help you succeed. But they sure aren't a substitute for doing the work. You only become a better designer through designing, or having a creative director that art directs the hell out of you until you learn the discipline.

Books, magazines, websites, music, other artistic mediums, etc. are aids in the process of gaining ideas. To borrow poet T.S. Eliot's critical note on the creative process — shown here not misquoted, as it usually is collapsed into the old adage "Good poets borrow, great poets steal":

Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different than that from which it is torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.

You could insert any artistic medium in for "poetry" in the above quote and it would hold true. Other designer's work is a launch pad, not a chance for you to rip them off wholesale. You don't copy other people's executions to make your work better. That would be unprofessional. Instead, you weld your theft into a whole of feeling which is unique and your own.

After you've been in the game for a decade or so, it can seem like the same ideas keep marching through. You keep your work unique by putting the right spin on the idea, clothing it something fresh. How many Western-themed invitations do you think have been made in your lifetime? What about a 1950s kitsch theme? These design motifs get recycled over and over again. The ideas behind them are what matter. When I left college, everything in the design world was new to me. Every idea seemed to spring unbidden in its novelty from brainstorming sessions with my creative teams. But after what seems a short 12 years, it became apparent that there are no new ideas under the sun. When embarking on a new project, if you stumble upon something fresh, it's 99.99% likely that someone else has already thought of it and maybe even won an award for it in a design magazine. But it's also likely that it hasn't been done in your market category, which is a certain kind of novelty that the market will easily bear.

For that 0.01% with the fresh, new idea — we envy you. It's the graphic design equivalent of visiting Antarctica, quiet and mysterious, always cold and yet full of exotic wildlife you can't find anywhere else. And you can't step foot there. Not easily, at least. You need all sorts of permits and special dispensations. So put that aside for the moment. The day you can visit will come.

I've seen that the most potent, original ideas spring out of imagination and empathy and experience much quicker than leafing through a stack of magazines. It always feels like the magazines come out halfway through a project, when we've concepted work to the point that we feel like we're exhausted, and then we whip out books to see if there were any approaches we missed. Those approaches rarely make the cut, as they're usually derivations on a theme. This is the same reason why I discourage young designers from using stock photography websites to look for ideas. Then you're just fitting your ideas to their imagery. Ideas create imagery, not vice versa.

Want to have fresh ideas? The trick here is so simple, it's almost counter-intuitive. Instead of looking outward for inspiration, look inward. You need to see into your own emotional experience to find the right solution. That experience can include what you've seen before in life, encompassing everything from design books to personal experience, forged in radical combination and recombination with other ideas bouncing around in your mind and with your team. Ideas come from emotions and visualizing yourself in the place of your audience. The execution comes out of your own hands and your own unique artistic vision. 

So remember... The seed of that great concept may have been inspired by something you've seen in a magazine. Just make sure, in the end, it's yours.