REFLECTION | 2 | inspiration vs imitation

Immitation versus inspiration

This subject has been popping up all over my life this past week. First off, I met with my thesis chair on Tuesday to discuss the direction that I was heading in. Gah. Help. Gulp. The research and direction that I’d been working in was basically rounding up to a big how-to on how to get better at things you’re not so great at. I used my blogging experience too literally, and basically was writing about how with the accumulation of pinterest, blogging, instagram, and twitter, you could become a better creative professional by using these media with specific intentions. While all valid in certain aspects, there isn’t one way in which we can all use these media that will lead to success. It works on an individual level. What some creatives understand about looking at a certain image on pinterest is completely different than what others see, and they inspire different thoughts and tangents and lead to various creative insights that can help inspire projects. There is no formula to the creative practice.

That being said, the ways in which we go about using the inspiration that we’re gathering needs to be dissected. We need to understand the difference between inspiration and imitation. I wrote a little about this topic in one of the Life & Letters over on Glass and Sable a while back. I think there is something so valid about being inspired by a piece of design or art and copying that with the intention of learning—and learning only. Part of the creative process is experimentation and taking what we already know or have access to and learning the basics. It’s only from the basics that we can understand the concepts behind what we want to create, and it’s from here that we grow into better designers, painters, crafters, whatever you hope to be when you grow up! BUT the trick here is taking these lessons a building upon them. When you take inspiration literally, it’s imitation. This is hard. It took me years to understand this, and honestly, I’m still working through it. On some kind of subconscious level I often catch myself sourcing too literally pieces of design that I’m inspired by. With the constant over-flow of inspiration available, sometimes you see an image, it goes into your database of inspiration and gets logged in your brain for days, weeks, years. Later, when going through the design process you come up with this brilliant new solution to a problem, create the piece, and later come to find that you’d accidentally copied something that you were inspired by. It happens. A couple months ago I basically recreated the typography from the Target holiday campaign for a logo design for a client. It wasn’t until a friend of mine pointed this out, and I felt like a complete nut job. Thankfully, the client chose a different rough draft logo and there was no harm done, but seriously, I couldn’t believe that even now I’m still doing this!

Tangents, those are things. Anyways, there are two things I really wanted to mention during this little chat we’re having.

ONE: Earlier this week I received an email from someone who had seen my business card design online. She loved them so much that she wanted to see if she could buy the design from me so that she didn’t have to pay a designer to recreate them for her company. Ummm. I was flattered that she liked the design and my brand enough to want to make it her brand too, but really. Am I being harsh here? Maybe, but it’s so strange to me that people, especially companies, can’t see that taking the essence and visuals from another brand and making it their own would eventually just speak poorly of their own. What you’re trying to do as a brand is to create a unique point of view, something entirely your own based on your own values. Imitating other brands is just in poor nature, and consumers are smart cookies—it’s not hard to see through a less than genuine brand when it comes to imitation. Can anyone say Bobs? Or another one of my favorites here—this one is not someone completely ripping off an entire business model, but it goes to show how brands can be diluted when the design community decides to take inspiration too literally.

TWO: [EDITED] Based on that general thought of the design community having the potential to cause some of the problems, I’d like to talk about how designers can work. As far as professionals go, I’ve seen two main groups of designers, and those that fall in-between. I’ll just call it out right now—I’m totally an in-betweener. Not to be confused with this, but yeah. Designer type one: realizes the potential the moodboard, and that great design exists. Has a great eye for details and can make things happen when it comes to visual aesthetics. Talks to a client, sees their vision, and goes out into the world or the interwebs and finds inspirations that work well to solve the design problems at hand. From here, this designer takes bits and parts from these different inspirations to create a unique solution. What can happen with this way of design is that the inspirations can come together in a patchwork-like way where the concept behind how the design came together can be a little fuzzy. I don’t want to devalue this way of working, as it has the potential to create some pretty beautiful work, but often-times the work does not have the conceptual validity to back it up. It has the potential to become decorative design. We all need a little of this in our lives sometimes though, and that’s why I still think this practice is valid. The second type of designer can see these different inspirations as catalysts for thought and concept. When looking at a piece of art, they see the principles behind that, and work at finding out the essence of how that came about so that they too can use these same kind of principles to help inform the thought process behind the work they’re creating—not just visually informing the end design. I think this is where the real beauty in creative thinking comes through, when you can get a deeper understanding of how the design and art principles work. Then you sit down, marinate on these concepts, and they come through to eventually inform the way you look at a new problem in design. This is hard, and it takes years upon years to understand how to start really using these inspirations and life experiences in your work as a creative. When talking with my thesis chair the other day, he mentioned that the ways in which designers work is so different from the ways artists work because designers usually work in project bubbles. They work on one project, and they keep it in a bubble. While some of the skills can translate to the next project, the conceptual process and practice usually doesn’t. What an artist does is to build upon the practices they create—each project can inform the next and the process grows. I think this is the core of what I’m trying to get at in my thesis. While I love the power of blogging and pinterest and all of the self-curative media that is available, I think too often as creatives we don’t work hard enough to take what we have learned and what we experience to turn it into something new and to let our processes that we learn from all of these experiences grow on each other.  Rather than taking bits and pieces of imitated aesthetics and concepts, why not use these to build up and inform the way you actually go about processing your next creative concept?

So, there you have it. My designerly rant for the week. Do you think there is any validity in this? Do you see this happening at all in your own work or in others? Again, I would love your thoughts—I think what’s so important about the media of blogging is that I can come here, write up my thoughts like this, and I can actually have conversations with the world about it. That’s pretty cool friends!

I hope you’ve had an excellent week.


Leave a Reply

  1. Audrey

    March 1st, 2013 at 9:59 AM

    YES. YES. And also YES.

    I say these yeses with conviction, though, because I’ve been seeing this in my work lately. I have this one artist I love who posts inspirational posts about getting creative and expressing yourself, and then I end up painting/drawing things that look like I’m expressing HERSELF, and not myself.

    I’ve really been struggling with this lately, and I really appreciate this post. I’ve been trying to take a step back from creating and take photos/make notes of things that I encounter in my daily life. Maybe through painting/drawing those things, my art will feel more authentic.

  2. Kelsey

    March 1st, 2013 at 11:41 AM

    Just keep going at it, and you’ll get there! I think this frustration is totally a healthy thing, and it makes you realize that you want/need to make these changes to push your creative process. One thing that has been helping me is writing. Here, and on my own in my journal, I’ve found that processing some of these thoughts and frustrations has lead to some pretty awesome (to me) insights that I’m hoping to use in the future. I think it’s awesome that you’re trying to push through this – I’d love if you’d keep me posted on any insights that you gather from your own reflection/process. It’s awesome to hear about people going through this so that I’m not just drawing from my own experiences. xoxo.

  3. Luchi

    December 29th, 2015 at 3:34 PM

    I LOVED This article, thank you for the inspiration!! Best regards from Guatemala!!!

  4. Alison

    March 1st, 2013 at 11:15 AM

    I think people need to realize in every design, there’s always a bit of inspiration from something else. Of course straight up copying is inexcusable (and the fact that someone emailed you for your design is just rude, lol), but every other week, bloggers come up with a post about how to not imitate, setting guidelines like they’re the ultimate pro-designers. I know you didn’t intend it that way, but i’m just so sick of hearing everyone go on about being authentic. It’s the same post over and over. Why don’t we focus on being authentic then, instead of telling every other blogger/designer what to do? At any given time, you’ll see the same product on tons of blogs, the same fonts used, the same colour scheme used, and I don’t think it’s because they’re all “imitating” one person… it’s because they ALL have great taste, and they all happen to like similar things. I love following these blogs for that very reason. That’s the beauty of blogging! If we didn’t have similar tastes, no one would be reading each other’s blogs, and no one would be attracted to a company based on their design/logo. Then what’s the point?

  5. Kelsey

    March 1st, 2013 at 11:37 AM

    Hi Alison! Thank you for your response, it’s totally valid to bring up the point that this talk on authenticity has gotten a little out of hand ;) That’s something I definitely have written down to research a bit more before I start putting together this thesis writing and it’s great to hear opinions like yours on this topic, especially with the points that you bring up. In a weird way, I didn’t even realize that what I was writing about was the ‘authenticity’ talk, but yeah, I totally was in a way. I really want to look into why as a designerly group of bloggers, we have seen such a surge in discussion over this topic. What I’m hoping that comes from this discussion and more of my research is not a specific way our guidelines to give designers/bloggers to go about living in an authentic way, but to give a framework for understanding design principles and how different people come to new ways of thinking through the possible use of the blogging/pinterest/etc. media. For me, I’ve been noticing these posts and my own free-writing have REALLY been helping me form a more informed framework for my own thoughts—which has the potential to help form deeper concepts for projects in the future, beyond just aesthetic choices. It’s probably something different for others, but knowing that you need to look into your own practice and find a way to your own unique vision is the first step. I think a lot of designers become very methodological in the way they design, and this is a healthy push into looking at the way they work in a new way, or adding new practices in along the way. While I’d written on here for over a year, I never used the fact that writing deeper posts with the potential for discussion could really aid in my personal process. I”m definitely still on my own creative journey, as many of us are, so I guess we just have to wait and see where all of this talk gets us! Thanks again for your thoughtful response lady! And, yes, agreed on the attraction part — I’d never thought about it that way, and I’m definitely taking note.

  6. stephanie @ BabaSouk

    March 1st, 2013 at 11:41 AM

    Really interesting subject! I often ask myself these questions when I design something. I’m not sure to which group I below but I’m surely aiming for no2! However the thing is when you have a design job to do (often being underpaid and with no time on your hands) it’s so easy to fall into no1 category! It’s a trap! I’m so tired of copy cats. Creativity is the way to go but we have to be willing to put the time and effort! Thanks for sharing your thoughts, inspiring!

  7. Kelsey

    March 1st, 2013 at 11:52 AM

    Hey Stephanie! I’m glad you found this inspiring :) Sometimes I feel like I end up rambling so much that I don’t even make sense to myself at the end, hah. I guess something I didn’t make as much of point of is that both categories of ‘designer’ are totally ok! I think that through the first process, you can definitely get some unique solutions and ideas that are totally valid and, in turn, unique through the process that is taken. What the second designer does is just to take those principles and look at them on a higher level. I think both take creativity and skills, but the second just has potential to become something really special and working in that way can lead to some great future possibilities not only for the outcomes of the design, but for the process and way in which you work and think as a designer. End second rant. ;) And yes, It’s hard when you can’t take the time and are under pressure to create at work, etc. You’ve inspired me to look into the practices for designers in a traditional work environment versus freelance designers versus ‘product’ designers or designers who make a living on the items they create and sell themselves. It would be interesting to see the different processes they go through! Thanks :)

  8. Kelsey

    March 1st, 2013 at 11:53 AM

    Also, can I say the word ‘process’ enough?? ;)

  9. Rashi @ Bucket of Squash

    March 1st, 2013 at 12:21 PM

    Great post. I can’t tell you how many times I design something and then realize after the fact that it resembles something else I saw a week/months ago and had tucked away for inspiration. I had no intention of “copying” but I just designed what manifested in my subconscious. I think the key is just to live a rich life where you can draw inspiration from everywhere, not just pinterest and other blogs. When you have a massive bank of inspiration at your disposal that has come from museums, books, lectures, clothes catalogues, ect. then I think you can start formulating you own thoughts, opinions and style. Of course this takes a lot of practice and much easier said than done.

  10. Kelsey

    March 1st, 2013 at 1:44 PM

    I definitely agree! I think that people are oftentimes over-looking how to incorporate a lot of that ‘outside’ inspiration and translate the ideas to their design. And yeah, I definitely need to practice more of this myself ;) Thanks for your thoughts Rashi! xoxo

  11. erika

    March 1st, 2013 at 12:31 PM

    kelsey, this is such a great post! it never occurred to me how, as designers, we stay within the project bubble. i know i have too often gone back and used a design element or process that has worked in the past and tried to rework it for a new project… rather than exploring way beyond what the design world has to offer, i’ve fallen back onto my tried and true designs. i think it’s so much more important to continually build upon past processes and experiences… and to get outside of the project bubble.

    i have also been seeing some designs lately that are heavily “inspired by” other designs out there… i want to shout it from the mountains to push it forward! let that inspiration be merely a starting point for what can be created and take it to an unexpected place. i do think that the onslaught of readily available information and inspiration can actually be a hindrance. this is definitely a conversation i’ve been interested in for a while. thanks for taking the time to discuss it!

  12. Kelsey

    March 1st, 2013 at 1:49 PM

    Seriously! When he started talking about the project bubbles we keep ourselves in as designers, I was totally shocked out of my own a little bit. I think I’ve been able to do a little of this with my hand-lettering, but only because I thought of it as a skill where the process builds up on top of itself, rather than thinking about it conceptually. It’s an awesome thought that I think we need to look into more as designers! I hear you with the pushing it forward thing too, sometimes we’re just alright with ‘good enough’ and we settle. Rashi actually had a great post about this a couple weeks ago, here.

  13. Alyssa Hoffman

    March 1st, 2013 at 12:39 PM

    AMEN, sista! Whoever said “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” is full of $hit.

    Having said that, I do catch myself sometimes being “too inspired” by a certain designer/design and I have to reign myself in. Is it intentional? No. But you are right- sometimes it happens by accident, but I am thankful that I can acknowledge that it is too similar instead of trying to pass it off as my original work.

    In my Art Direction seminar in college we got into this huge arguement/discussion with my professor over the whole inspiration vs. imitiation debate. My professor argued that NOTHING is original anymore and everything has been done before (in an advertising sense). The difference in insipration and imitation is how you take that inspiration and create something to solve new problems rather than just replicating what inspired you in the first place which in turn just results in predictable work and a bad reputation. At first, we all completely disagreed. We all felt like we were original advertising genuises set out to change the world with our fresh ideas (hilarious looking back on it). Now that I have been out in the real world I can now understand and appreciate what he was saying, because sometimes there can be a VERY thin line between the two.

    Have you read Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon? Totally recommend! It’s a great and fast read that covers this exact topic.

    Have a great weekend!

  14. Kelsey

    March 1st, 2013 at 1:53 PM

    You’re right Alyssa, I think that we can all fall for the inspiration trick, but it’s important to take note and be aware of it, and hopefully move forward from those experiences! We’re human, and we’ll end up making mistakes, but the important thing here is that we try :)

    So funny about your discussion! It’s amazing to look back and see what kind of ideals and thoughts you held back in the day ;) Cute, right? I get this way when I read old papers of mine, hah. And thanks for the book rec!! I have heard of it, but completely forgot about it. I’ll be downloading it today. I really need to start looking more into the processes of ‘artists’ versus ‘designers’ and see where we can maybe learn to overlap that! Thanks again for stopping by and for your excellent input! xoxo

  15. Katie

    March 1st, 2013 at 4:25 PM

    I have really enjoy these reflective posts you have been doing, Kelsey. I have a formal background/education in Graphic Design from a school that focused A LOT on theory as opposed to practice and these conversations happened regularly. We debated a lot about design with a big “D” and design with a little “d” and the difference, etc. I have so many thoughts on design – so so many.

    I think there is such a fine balance to be struck, because as Designers we are not Artists. We need to make informed choices in our work and infuse it with creative thinking, but then we also need to get the job done. I can honestly say that I do WAY more surface-level inspiration gathering than I should. I’ve probably regressed in my research skills since graduating four or five years ago due to lots of different factors. That said, I think as long as we are staying aware of those cracks and crevices and are honest with ourselves about our own expectations for our work we can use those bits and bobs along with our own tastes and research to get to the kinds of solutions we can be proud AND that fit in with the contemporary design paradigms that we’re inspired by.

    This was such a huge gut-check for me. I’m now thinking about how I can infuse my design with meaning based on the set of constraints that I’m working within. So basically: how do I better myself as a designer?

    Again, I love these posts! Keep ’em coming :)

  16. Dawn

    March 3rd, 2013 at 6:03 PM

    Thank you! Wonderful post! I am constantly looking for
    inspiration. I think I may be more of a designer type right

  17. Sherry Saunders

    March 14th, 2013 at 2:32 AM

    I think these Michael Beriut articles might help your ideas
    (in case you haven’t read them):\ Also, I
    just watched this video of Doyald Young, a typographer and
    letterer, and he says he’s not creating anything new, just making
    it better…maybe if we focused on being better as designers and
    not always the most original, design would improve. I think
    authenticity is an important aspect of your research to discuss,
    but I also feel that quality is getting lost in this new way of
    curating design ideas online. Many people look at inspiration for a
    quick fix for their own work, and often don’t improve on the idea
    they are inspired by.
    I’m really interested in your research. Good luck with the thesis


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  20. Noor

    May 9th, 2013 at 5:20 AM

    This was really great article. I guess at least she asked you is she can buy your brand instead of just stealing it but wow I can not believe that someone would think that was okay.

  21. Joana

    May 9th, 2013 at 12:57 PM

    These ideas have been widely studied since Ancient Greece.
    If this is part of the subject of your thesis, I would vividly recommend some readings like Balzac’s short stories, all the Italian Renaissance (they’re masters on this subjects), a close look to the meaning of sprezzatura and other important terms. From an european perspective, you’re not giving anything new to the matter. So read read read and try to convert reading into something that comes with inspiration, rather than just imitating old news…

  22. Jess

    May 10th, 2013 at 10:54 AM

    I am an artist, so I’m not sure if this was really geared toward me. However, I’m glad to have read it and I do agree with you. I tend to agree that “nothing is original anymore.” However, I have learned quite a bit about my own use of “inspiration” in the last few years (with Pinterest and Flickr especially). The conclusion I’ve reached is that I do much better, creative work when I am inspired by objects/images that come from different sources than my own medium. I work with textiles, and have almost completely stopped looking at other textile artists’ work. Not that I don’t appreciate it or think it is beautiful, but I don’t want their work to inform mine. Instead, I choose to look at nature, photographs, fine art, interior design, graphic design, architecture, antiques, etc. I often incorporate elements from those things into my own separate medium. My work then (I feel) reflects inspiration, combined with my own personal taste and voice. Also, as was mentioned by you and other commenters, I find that I lean too heavily toward imitation when I am pressed for time, being lazy, or trying to force myself to create something instead of letting it flow. When I relax, set aside time to properly imagine, plan, and create – that is when my work feels most genuine.

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  26. roza

    March 26th, 2016 at 10:36 PM

    Great article! Thank you for this. I have had so many people imitating and straight up copying my work that I cannot count anymore. “Process” takes time and a lot of people look for a quick way to make easy money, often based on someone’s long, intimate and sometimes hard journey.