Editor’s note: This article builds upon a conversation with senior-year students studying industrial design at Cal State University Long Beach.
Inspiration is the cornerstone of design. Design of any sort can hardly exist in a bubble; it takes into consideration the past, present, and future of aesthetic, as well as technology and materiality.
I’m sure we have all experienced design that doesn’t take into consideration interiors, architecture, or products that may have once been lauded but quickly became obsolete. On the other side of that are those designs that use inspiration to fit into their surroundings while providing their own spin.
The importance of inspiration is that it not only provides a starting point but also, when used well, creates context for the design.
i+s Editor-in-Chief Kadie Yale has been collecting images of things that inspire her since studying design as an undergraduate
Where We Find Inspiration
The long and short of it is that inspiration is found everywhere. When discussing inspiration with architect Fauzia Khanani, founder and principal of Fōz Design, she explained inspiration is not found by going to a place; while broadening your horizons may give you a wider context, the truth is that those of us who enter the design industry do so because we are curious about the world.
We see things differently than other people. While 90 percent of people may ignore the things around them or state indifferently what they’re looking at is “only”—only a construction mark or only a couple of holiday decorations—designers latch onto those forms and patterns, using them in unique ways.
Did you know the reason the Hermes logo includes a horse and carriage is because the company originally made saddles? Its process of tanning leather and stitching the pieces together were then used to create luxury bags.
Renowned industrial designer Carl Gustav Magnusson said in an interview with i+s in 2017 that when considering his new task chair Lyss for Allseating, it was important that every visible was designed, including the use of saddle stitching across the front seams of the chair’s arms. Again, the beauty of the stitch was put into use a century after using horses for everyday transportation.
The Lyss chair by Carl Gustav Magnusson for Allseting
Another inspiration for Magnusson since he was a child: cars. The sleek use of metallic base takes inspiration from the use of aluminum in vehicles, and the legs borrow from star hubcap design. “I’ve always been mad about [cars]" Magnusson said in his interview with i+s. "If you think about the details on Audis, for example, [there is] beautiful trim. If you take a real close look at it, it’s never chrome; it’s always extruded, or cast, or stamped aluminum, and it’s finished with a nearly acid-etched texture. After that, it’s anodized.”
Two otherwise opposing vehicles--horses and automobiles--combined in the design of his collection.
Inspiration in a Social Media World
Today it is easier for us to pull inspiration from around the world than ever before. Pinterest and Instagram allow us to make digital inspiration boards from just about anything on the internet. Personally, my Instagram account is a record of things that I have found interesting over the last several years since I began using it, and you can go back through to see how everything from frozen mud to street art has caught my attention.
A section of Yale's Instagram page
When I discuss inspiration and how to pinpoint an individual design aesthetic with non-designers, I advise them to take some time to “pin” or save things on Instagram—a few weeks to a month should do it. Then we discuss the patterns. Are there shapes that keep reoccurring? Colors? Are they drawn to one type of design more than another? It’s harder to be happy with an interior or wedding theme when you’re designing for what you think you like rather than what actually inspires you.
Of course, for industrial designers there will be plenty of times when you can’t design the types of products by which you are inspired. However, using this method can help you see what inspiration you can utilize in design, whether it’s an experimental materiality, aesthetic form, or, in Magnusson’s case, a specific seam.
The Importance of Original
For several years, I taught a recitation course on the history of graphic design at Parsons the New School. Every semester, I started with an explanation on why understanding context—in this case through history—is so important. I would always introduce this image:
I then asked who the artist was.
It is probably unsurprising that this group of 19 and 20 year olds would then roll their eyes and point out that it was created by Shepard Fairey, artist of Obey. Then I would provide this image:
Koloman Moser's 1890 print
I would then ask at what point inspiration becomes plagiarism.
Fairey is a perfect example, particularly due to his legal battle with the Associated Press over his Barak Obama “Hope” poster that re-colored one of the media outlet’s photographs. Inevitably, someone would bring up the fact that legally the separation begins at 25-percent of the work.
It isn’t just students who bring this up. Whenever the conversation of inspiration vs. plagiarism or inspiration vs. appropriation is discussed, without fail someone will bring up the legal definition.
There are two problems to discussing the legal allowances of copyright infringement, the first being the fact that the 25-percent rule isn’t true. The standard for infringement is “substantial similarity.”
Andy Warhol's iconic design, used with permission and credit to the artist on a Dunny vinyl doll
Secondly, to me, what someone can easily get away with legally shouldn’t be part of the conversation. Questioning how close to the line someone may get without getting into legal trouble detracts from the actual conversation: How can inspiration inform a project without lazily allowing the inspiration to do all of the heavy lifting?
The answer is, in my opinion, education and empathy.
It’s said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and I have heard students and professionals alike use this as an excuse for plagiarism.
The conversation of plagiarism is a much longer topic that we will discuss at length, but for now, I will say that the way to break out of the cycle is to learn more about those products you are inspired by and use that information to elevate your own designs as well as the options that are out there.
Do you or a client love the Eames Lounge Chair because of the bent wood frame or because of the notoriety? Are there ways to incorporate the notable characteristics into your own products and interiors without attempting to make a carbon copy?
Understanding the “why” and the “how” is part of the design process. I’ve said before that designers are those who never grew out of the question “why” and wouldn’t take “just because” as the answer. We break out of our own cycle of imitating when we understand what we are inspired by in a broader sense and think through the steps to incorporate those things in a new and exciting way.
And appreciating a work through education, understanding, and expanding on the knowledge and form that your predecessors put out there in the world is truly the sincerest form of flattery.