Recommendations. For better or for worse?

I’m often asked by clients, students or creative friends…where do I go for inspiration, resources, best practices or the latest whatever? Or is it a bad thing, leading to copycat ideas or a rehash of the latest “everyone’s doing it so it must be good” look?


DESIGNER CAVEAT: It never hurts to be aware of current visual trends or see what designers are sharing, but don’t overdo it. Many great concepts have been marred by typographic overuse of the Bernhard Moderns of the ’80s, Copperplate Gothic of the ’90s, Helvetica Neue in 2000, or those pesky quadrant hipster logos (yup, it's okay to nod knowingly). There’s an inner danger of looking too long or too often at designer greatest hits or Pinterest-style visual blogs without initiating your own creative morals or standards.

Don’t get me wrong, I admire beautiful, smart design and love the motivation it gives to kickstart strong work of my own. However, anyone who “borrows” too much of the same thing perpetuates those same visual parallels for the next. Certain visuals could get embedded into the recesses of the mind, plausibly brought forth without realizing the origin. Then there are those who say that truly new ideas are impossible with social media or that tribute or reinvention of any degree are equally fine and well. Thus, it would be a shame to work up a design idea only to discover that it’s already been done or worse yet, much better. Backpedalling is never a positive outcome, and neither is falling into a formula or having your work mistaken for someone elses. Perhaps it would be different if it happened by sheer coincidence, but even then, watch out especially if it’s a paying job. Bottom line for me? Design books work as a catalyst for inspiration to adopt methodology, problem solve by example and healthy competition via self-regulation. Using it as a source for covert plagiarism however, isn't.


So what to do? Wordplay. Mind maps. Too boring? Go elsewhere. Try a new start. Don’t think like a designer; think like the end user. BE the end user. Good ideas are everywhere, sometimes where you least expect it. Whether observing nature, going out for a run, taking a nap or looking at something totally outside of design execution. Think different(ly). Take a break. Take time. Fear, jealousy, and frustration are surprisingly great creative motivators. The desire to be influenced by nothing or no one. Start with the genesis of a design idea. Or even a germ of an idea and build upon it. One leap forward, 2 steps back, repeat. Look at things abstractly via structures, science, basic shapes, or even pictograms where communication is forced down to it’s most basic, essential elements. Like the beauty of a single Twitter message, force yourself to make points more succinct and stronger with less.

When I want to ideate (that is, briskly deliver a continuous string of design iterations), I may flip through quality design sources to get myself into a certain high level frame of mind, focussing on a design piece to trigger another thought. That's a creative approach I like, to force different ways of looking at things as a competitive challenge. For example, I may explore experimental typography to crack a logo problem that requires a change in visual perspective, international poster designs for bold color palettes, or publication design for illustrative approaches to typography. Other times, even the act of PLAY can make a difference. We used to do it as kids to understand relationships and make new discoveries or connections. Play as an adult might look different with a more refined set of tools, but the freedom and non-judgmental environment can lead us down that same path of reward.

On the other hand, there are those tangibles that encourage original thinking and learning from some of the best and the brightest. What are my top fave design books? It’s less about actual titles as it is the KIND of books I like to turn to time and again. (Almost all of these—except those sold online by independent publishers—are readily available from public libraries.)

HOW TO THINK BOOKS. “Smile in the Mind” (revised edition) by Beryl McAlhone and David Stuart. Debbie Millman’s “How to Think Like a Graphic Designer”. “79 short essays on Design” by Michael Beirut. “Designing Design” by Kenya Hara. Reading any or all of these is like giving your brain a little hug.

MENTOR IN A BOOK. Eric Karjaluoto’s “The Design Method” is a winner. Same for “Design is a Job” by Mike Monteiro. “How to be a Designer Without Losing your Soul” by Adrian Shaughnessy. Very affirming and meditative after experiencing unethical design behaviours with past collaborators. Those instances were disappointing, frustrating and alarming, which is why I insist that sketching is far more valuable than just a digital file one can edit and rename to change the course of history. Sharing or giving credit where due is always okay and right. Slander or lying can blow up in faces and damage reputations in the long run.

MASTER COLLECTIONS TO ASPIRE & INSPIRE ON YOUR OWN JOURNEY. Whether it’s a massive collection of everything that is 1000% awesome in a single coffee table book like “Logo Modernism” by Jens Müller or following along ones life’s work in “Logo Book” by Stefan Kanchev or “Lance Wyman: The Monograph” by Unit Editions, these kind of books are life-changing and utterly encouraging for me. It’s a reminder that there are always more than one way to do something, and that the only limitations hindering our progress are the ones we put in the way. Even those still pushing boundaries in their current work, are worthwhile in selections like “Make it Bigger” by Paula Scher, “Made you Look” by Stefan Sagmeister, “Typorama” by Philippe Apeloig, “Pretty Pictures” by Marian Bantjes and “Pretty Much Everything” by Aaron Draplin. These design powerhouses all share common threads. Their work may vary stylistically over the years, but there’s a consistency worth celebrating. Plus, they always manage to put a bit of themselves into everything they do (intimate self-portraits notwithstanding).

PROCESS BOOKS. “How to” by Michael Beirut isn’t a literal step-by-step guide the way Jessica Hische’s “In Progress” is at times, but both are highly valuable references for all levels along the path towards successful, confident design outcomes.

TIMELESS CLASSICS or OLDIE BUT GOODY BOOKS. That saying of “while they zig, you zag” is why I often revisit the craft of early Charles Spencer Anderson/CSA Design/French Paper collections (from 1985-2005 most are out of print). I’m enamored by the idea of past history teaching us basic fundamentals for the future, so I’ve been digging into really old logo collections from the 60s & 70s. Rare classics like “Trademarks & Symbols” by Yasaburo Kuwayama or older Scandinavian and German logo collections like “Signs & Signets” by Stiebner & Urban make one marvel at the exquisite graphic forms and pre-computer era (hand drawn!) designs. Aaron Draplin encourages a sentiment I share of looking at design from all kinds of sources, particularly very old print pieces where they got really graphic and really simple with lowest quality printing or design resources (e.g. drawing and typesetting by hand). I even found one on my desk in the form of a self-inking rubber stamp! The act of looking, never ceases to be an underrated but vital skill for anyone.

I can’t emphasize enough; DO NOT ripoff or directly copy others. YOU are you, and you can make your living by what YOU can offer to your utmost abilities. The past model of how we used to be taught was by duplicating masterworks or doing a riff of their past successes. But the reality is that we can NEVER match them, nor should we. And did these masters truly learn by copying? Perhaps a little when they were young getting their feet wet, but more often than not, NO. They got frustrated with what was the norm or status quo and already formed a vision in their mind of what they wanted to discover and release from within. But as experienced artists or photographers I’ve had conversations with all strongly encourage….Do not copy. Find your own voice by learning HOW to think and HOW to understand structure so you can DO YOUR OWN work. Likewise for design, I shared my own referrals of what works for me. Maybe it’s a start for you but I encourage you to find your bliss and follow the beat of your own drum. That is my best recommendation.