Mark Twain wrote in his autobiography, “There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope.”

On day one of my first design internship, my creative director sat me down and said, “You’re never going to create anything new. It’s all been done before. But that’s ok. Make it yours.” At first, I found these words to be discouraging and it was as if he didn’t believe in my creativity. Yet, after I thought about it, I realized he was giving me permission to search for inspiration and more importantly, to USE it. He was right, everything has been done before in one way or another. The important question to ask yourself is, has it been done your way?

At times, the word inspiration can be taboo for creatives. If we need inspiration it must mean that we’re not creative enough to think up something on our own right? Wrong. Whether we are actively looking for inspiration or not, we are constantly inspired by our surroundings, the people we interact with, and culture we imbibe. We take everything in and, if we’re doing our jobs right, let it shape our view of art and design. So why not actively seek out elements to inspire?

But when does using inspiration take a turn to the dark side? I believe it's when we start taking what others have done rather than learning from what others have done. We'll call the former Imitation and the latter emulation.

Imitation vs. Emulation

Imitation is the copy and paste. It’s the fake Rolex or the knock-off Air Jordan’s you got off Instagram. This is when we take what others have made and try to pass it off as our own. No thought or creativity involved in the process. Not only are we stealing from those with the original idea, we’re hurting ourselves because nothing was learned in the process. That’s where emulation comes in. Emulation is Star Wars VII or the new rap artist everyone says is “the next Jay-Z”. It’s when we study creative work and not only identify what works, but also WHY it works and use that to create. It’s homage rather than theft.

How do we look for inspiration?

Combing through design blogs or following your favorite designer can be a great start, but could also limit your view of the creative world we’re in. Learn to step outside your area and look to other creative minds that may not necessarily be in your field of work. There’s a recent post discussing some creative minds to get to know. Getting to know the creative process of others can fuel creativity in your own work. Another great source of inspiration is through collaboration. Working closely with other talented designers can fill your creative tank as well.

It's ok to let our influences show.

Once you’ve found inspiration to work from, what do you do with it? To keep from turning to the dark side and imitating instead of emulating, before you put pen to paper (or start clicking away on your laptop) you need to ask yourself one important question, “how would I make this?”. It’s fine to pull inspiration from others but the moment you lose touch of yourself in a project is the moment that inspiration is wasted. There needs to be parts of yourself in everything you design. It really is ok to let your influences show as long as you put your creative talent in the mix as well.


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