What makes you special

Thoughts on Inspiration

As a designer and occasional manager of other designers I’m exposed to design work all day every day. I see other people’s work both online and at the office and often times I have to articulate my feedback around it and find constructive ways to improve what’s in front of me. At the same time I also interview people almost every week, and every once in awhile I get an email from either a student or a designer starting their career asking me for feedback or recommendations about how to move forward.

So far I’ve realized there is one common question I tend to bring up when talking about people’s portfolios. It’s the same question I’ve asked myself in the past and every time I have felt stagnant and wanted to move my own career forward.

What makes your work unique?

It’s a tough question. In graphic design, like in any other industry I suppose, people go through phases when they start. For us designers I believe there is a phase of mimicking. Designers quickly create their own heroes, they follow them to talks, follow their work, read their articles and feel inspired by their style. This phase never really ends though your heroes will change over time.

The Mimicking phase is important because it will give you a better perspective of the industry and will help you initially to improve your execution skills. However it’s important to know when to stop. Mimicking others won’t make your work any more unique or special and won’t really bring any attention to what matters- you. When I look back at my previous work over the years I still can identify the parts of it where I was trying to be someone else by getting “overly inspired” and the parts that I came up with out of my own experience that helped me define what I do today. I personally only feel proud about the latter.

With all these considerations in mind I believe I have identified two pointers to guide me along the way. Take them for what they are worth and I hope it can help you too.

Looking for inspiration beyond the mainstream sources.

If you want to come up with something truly unique you need to get inspired beyond other people’s pixels and projects. Most of the time the best sources are those we can relate back to our life instead of those coming from the same discipline.

Let’s pretend you have been commissioned to come up with a new system and a new look and feel for a new mobile OS. An assignment like this one calls for a really unique approach but if your go-to place for inspiration is Dribbble or Behance you’ll end up looking at fairly similar ideas, all of them probably coming from the same industry. What if instead you look into sources that respond to a common nature but have a really different execution? For instance you could look into different matters like biological organization patterns, modes of surfacing and consuming content within traditional newspapers and even obvious stuff like gravity or spatial relationships?

I’ve come to realize that when my work is inspired by my own needs, interests and surroundings it’s unlikely to be just like somebody else’s work or current trends.

Know when to stop the inspiration cycle.

Inspiration is like sugar, a little bit will give you a kick but if you ingest too much you’ll feel sick and unmotivated. There is a threshold I’ve realized I should not exceed when looking for inspiration. The times I do, I have experienced a creative block which somehow took me back to the mimicking phase of imitating somebody else. Just like with sugar there is a sweet spot that will kickstart your brain into creating something unique maybe based on something you have seen but if you cross the line you may end up feeling unable to be creative.

With that said it’s simply the beauty of the moment we live in.

Inspiration is a great tool but it shouldn’t shadow the experiences and uniqueness that makes you who you are. Your style and unique approach will always end up being the result of your experiences and the parts of your work you enjoy doing the most.

Keep rocking and thanks for reading.


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