In our newest design debate, Nadine Kolodziey, Thomas Kronbichler, and Polina Joffe weigh on the pros and cons of endless visual stimulation. Ready, set, debate.
“Following too many design feeds online encourages repetition and stifles creativity. That’s why we have to be smart in how we curate our personal streams.” —Nadine Kolodziey, illustrator
We’re online all the time, and that means we’re constantly in contact with visual stimulation of some kind or another.
If you’re always looking at other people’s designs on the bus or during a break, though, then you subconsciously involve it in your own output. Soon you realize: “Bummer; I’ve just made something that looks exactly the same as what other people are doing.” You copy and repeat, and although it might start out subconsciously, eventually you’re participating in a trend. You lose sight of your personal approach; what others are doing begins to cloud your judgement and intuition.
I understand why people might want to be part of a trend. A client might want something that’s trendy – and it could be helpful strategically to be thought of as part of a collection of people who work in a certain way. Ultimately, though, it’s limiting on both sides. The illustrator doesn’t have a sense of individuality in their work, and all clients are buying similar styles – which means their brand lacks distinction.
It’s important to look at other designs – to know what’s going on – but in moderation. If you’re trying to get inspired, looking at other creative work is the wrong strategy. It’s personally very hard for me to be inspired when I follow a lot of other illustrators online. I’ve been using Instagram for two and a half years now. At first, I always looked at other illustrators’ work. Of course I did, because it’s what I do. I love illustration. But then I noticed that it was hindering my creative potential.
I started noticing that I was working in a similar color palette to many others. I noticed that looking at other work reduces the personal courage needed to try something new. When I look at a finished piece of work by another illustrator, it’s impossible for me to see potential in it. I can’t be creative, because I’m compelled to mimic what that other person has done.
The solution lies in how I choose what to follow online. There is a difference between looking at work by your colleagues and looking at general images. I’m interested in online inspiration that becomes like a “hint,” and I curate my social media streams accordingly. Instead of following other illustrators on Instagram, I follow content that’s aesthetically intriguing. I’ll follow people who collect unusual stones or take photographs of beautifully arranged Japanese food, for example.
I particularly like ‘I’m Google,’ a blog that arranges images not thematically, but visually. When I view images like these, they immediately spark new concepts and directions in my mind, especially when I’m beginning work on a new commission. These sources then become a trigger for me: I’ll see an image of a rock from outer space when I’m scrolling, and its form will inspire how I then arrange a composition.
“Online inspiration encourages international networking and conversation. The problem is when images of design are circulated without context.” —Thomas Kronbichler, founder and creative director, Studio Mut
At Studio Mut, we are big fans of digital space, and we’re not afraid of inspiration overload. We’re a small studio in a small town in the middle of the Alps—this is Heidi land here—so the internet provides us with incredible inspiration from all around the world. It also gives us a platform for presenting our own designs, which would have been impossible 10 years ago.
Because of how images circulate online, we can reach a European and American audience with our work. And as a result of online feeds and social media, the graphic design community is now extremely close. This has negative effects, of course – a lot of people say graphic design is getting too similar aesthetically. But the positive side is that there’s a lot more graphic design today. People can get involved in the industry from almost anywhere, instead of just major cities; it’s more inclusive. There are people in small towns all across Europe, for example, who are doing crazy things, and we’re all able to watch and support one another from afar. The circulation of images online is ultimately good for graphic design as an art form.
The problem is that online there is not a lot of curating. With certain blogs and streams, there is no explanation in terms of where an image comes from. Projects that were designed for friends and projects done for huge companies are circulated in the same space, which is interesting, but I miss the sense of differentiation and context.
The story behind a design and how a problem is solved is so crucial to one’s understanding of it. I find that I’m not inspired by images of a particular design, but instead I’m inspired when I hear about a designer’s process. Learning about a designer’s particular philosophy is far more likely to inform my own. I also enjoy hearing about how a designer approaches client-relationships. This, of course, cannot be summed up by a simple image.
I’ve personally moved away from browsing on Tumblr blogs and Pinterest because what inspires me most is hearing about how a problem was solved. Ultimately, the most inspiration I get is from videos of designers talking at conferences. There is something so exciting about hearing people talk about their process. I get a lot from how someone frames a project and approaches it; how they describe client relationships and how they deconstruct a brief. I like to hear about the stumbling blocks they came up against, and then how they overcame them. Therefore it’s not creative process that informs me (Studio Mut’s creative process is very formulated now); rather it’s more attitudes, or ways of thinking, that I find inspirational.
Just last week, for example, I binge-watched all videos of Michael Bierut talks available online. I love how he presents his work, and how generous he is with giving credits to other people for example. It’s his attitude that I admire. And I can watch all of Michael’s videos without having to leave my studio in the Alps. It’s perfect.
“It’s extremely important to be aware of what’s happening, and online inspiration has streamlined that process.” —Polina Joffe, art director and graphic designer
If you know what others are doing, you can choose to engage with it or you can choose to reject it. In order to form opinions and make informed decisions, you definitely need to be in the know.
I’m constantly looking at what other people are doing online, and I’m continually soaking things up on blogs and social media. Then when it comes to a specific project, I will do project-specific research. The amount of inspiration we have via the internet makes this research phase very easy and productive. I often remember concepts and ideas that designers have used previously that I’ve come across on social media, and then I update, transform, and remix those ideas with my own so that they work for my specific brief.
Online browsing has given me a huge visual dictionary of concepts and approaches that I hold in my mind, and I can dip into it whenever I’m beginning a new commission.
I recently did a project for Tate London’s education team. The project was aimed at young people. First of all, if you’re working for young people, it’s important to be aware of trends that are happening in young people’s fields so that you can reference them. You need to nod toward a visual language that the audience will understand. If you’re not aware of that language, you can’t make those references. For the research phase of the project, I looked at how other designers have also dealt with communicating the idea of learning. Originally I had the idea of doing something with notebooks and binders. I then remembered projects I’d seen online that had used ring binders or notepad paper, and was able to go back and look at them again. Seeing how others have dealt with similar themes spurred new ideas for me.
We often talk about creativity coming from within, but I don’t know if I believe that. Everything comes from somewhere. For me, creativity is often about seeing how people have remixed ideas before, and then doing my own special and specific remix.
A lot of the history of visual communication has been about copying, updating, and shifting. There is, of course, a danger in recreating what others have done too much, and using similar elements to the point of ripping them off. That’s why you have to look at a lot of different sources when you’re doing research and getting inspired. The amount of images that we now have available at our fingertips, if used responsibly, can encourage a fresh take and keep us up to date.
Madeleine Morley is a design and architecture writer based in Berlin. She studied English literature at Cambridge University and went on to complete an MA in art history at the Courtauld Institute of Art. She has written for Creative Review, AIGA, Monotype, magCulture, AnOther, and The Guardian among others.