Finding fresh inspiration Matt 06 Oct 2006

36 comments Latest by Jav

Tony Bennett was on the Tavis Smiley show recently (transcript) and offered this anecdote about how he learned to sing:

Bennett: Mimi Speer on 52nd Street taught me popular music and taught me to imitate musicians rather than other singers so I wouldn’t sound like somebody else and be one of the chorus of some famous star. She said, “You listen to the musicians on 52nd Street and pick [it] out.” I liked Art Tatum on piano and then Stan Getz. He had a beautiful honey sound. And Lester Young. Those three artists really gave me my start.

Tavis: Your teacher taught you to imitate musicians and not artists.

Bennett: Right.

Tavis: What’s the distinction? What’s the difference?

Bennett: Well, the singers — you know, Frank Sinatra was the rage in those days and his big competition was a guy called Dick Haynes and then there was Billy Eckstine. They were so popular that she said, “If you just sing like they do and imitate their voices, you’re going to sound like one of the chorus because everybody’s doing that”. She said, “To be an individual, listen to musicians and listen to what they’re doing and imitate musicians rather than the singers.” It was a very creative teacher that told me what to do about just being myself.

It’s a great story and relevant to anyone who works (or plays) in a creative field. It’s always a challenge to sound like an individual instead of a member of the chorus.

Look at web design these days: Gradients, bursts, big type, rounded corners, pastel colors, and reflections rule the roost. This slavish adherence to Web 2.0 design trends by the “chorus” is resulting in a big snoozefest.

(Note: Web designers aren’t the only guilty ones here either. Print designers leaf through design annuals for ideas, bands copy the hot sound on the radio, writers parrot whatever’s charting on the bestseller list, etc. There are “lookalikes” everywhere.)

Now it’s not like all outside inspiration is evil. Everyone’s influenced. If you believe Oscar Wilde, “Talent borrows, genius steals.” The problem is that when everyone is turning to the same places for influence, things get stale. We wind up drowning in a sea of me-toos.

Here are some ideas for where to find fresh inspiration:

Look to the past
Looking to the past is a great way to get outside the current zeitgeist. Not sure where to start? Trace a path backwards. Find out who influences peers that you admire. If you like Jim Coudal’s designs, then check out Joseph Muller-Brockmann. If you admire Jonathan Ive, then check out Dieter Rams. Or, to give a musical example, if you like the way Jack White plays guitar then check out Jimmy Page. Then once you soak that up, check out Link Wray, a big influence on Page. The more you dig, the more likely you are to find fresh soil.

Look to a foreign culture
Don’t limit yourself to your own culture. Foreign places and ideas inject a new perspective. Inspiration might come from an Ethiopian grave marker, a Persian rug, flying buttresses at European cathedrals, the simplicity of Wabi Sabi, etc.

Look to nature
haeckelNature is an endless source of inspirational ideas. Find a color palette in nature. Or draw inspiration from the shapes of nature (e.g. the nature drawings of Ernst Haeckel).

Look to a different medium
Bennett’s tale of getting inspiration from an instrument instead of a voice is a great example of this. Some others:

A design student once asked Michael Bierut for any advice he had for them. He answered, “To have other interests than design.”

Patrick Hughes creates amazing 3D landscapes (they really need to be seen in person). Recently, I got to chat with him and he told me he never goes to museums or galleries. He conscientiously makes a point to avoid looking at other paintings because he doesn’t want to see the work of people who are toiling in the same medium. He told me he’d much rather be influenced by books he reads.

Bob Dylan gets lyrical inspiration from classic movies, 19th century poems, and Japanese gangster novels.

Software developers picked up Christopher Alexander’s pattern language, originally intended for architects, and made it their own (web designers too). Now, Alexander may be having a greater impact on computer science than on architecture.

Bottom line
When everyone else is looking the same way for inspiration, look somewhere else. The result is a lot more likely to be something singular and fresh.

36 comments so far (Jump to latest)

Bob 06 Oct 06

I LOVE tony bennett

Craig 06 Oct 06

I am SOOOO glad you wrote about this subject. I have really been struggling with “originality” with web 2.0. Everything looks the same to me, and I am tired of using the same design approach for every site I design. Also being a musician, I am also wondering if there are any guitar riffs that haven’t been written yet! I’m glad I am not the only who is in this same situation. As I set out to design my portfolio, I have not been “moved” by any of my own designs. This is bad. Feels like its all been done before. I think I will break out an old Moroccan lamp I have for inspiration.

J Phill 06 Oct 06

Great timing for this write-up. I’ve had creative block for the past few days and it’s extremely frustrating! I’ve been looking around the web for ideas/inspiration, and everything just looks the same.

William 06 Oct 06

As a college student looking to get into advertising, I really appreciated this article. It’s nice sometimes to remember/be reminded to go back to where creativity is found and rethink the standard line.

KFunk 06 Oct 06

When I need fresh inspiration I just turn to mushrooms, alchohol, and cocaine- In no particular order.

Nick 06 Oct 06

Great post. I couldn’t agree more. However, there’s also something to be said for the “fake it till you make it” approach. Here’s some wisdom from Sam Walton (founder of Wal-Mart):

�I probably have traveled and walked into more variety stores than anybody in America. I am just trying to get ideas, any kind of ideas that will help our company. Most of us don’t invent ideas. We take the best ideas from someone else.�

Not that I endorse with Wal-Mart and its labor-busting, sprawl-inducing business practices, but you can’t argue with their success.

Jennifer 06 Oct 06

Wow, I just has a missing time experience looking through the links in this post. Especially when I got into the Dylan dialogue/lyric machine. You’ve inspired me to take more work breaks and explore new sites. So thanks!

Brain Eno 06 Oct 06

As a follow up to Josh’s comment:
an Oblique Strategies widget for users of Mac OS X 10.4

Useful when you reach a creative brick wall …

or if you’re bored.

Gary R Boodhoo 06 Oct 06

This article arrived (like magick) at a time when I’m working through some ideas trying to find my own voice. As part of a large multidisciplinary collaboration, that voice can be all too easily drowned out by the status quo.

My feeling has always been that good or bad, art doesn’t happen until the discomfort level rises to a point at which its just easier to ignore it than indulge it. I for one, look forward to the next two weeks of “going rogue”

re: Jack White - ah… forget it… too nice of a day to indulge my disrespect

Timothy 06 Oct 06

In the “Who are 37signals?” section of this page, why did Jamis get stuck as being mentioned lasted even though Mark I. is the most recent hire?

Jack Straw 06 Oct 06

Who the hell is Link Wray? Oh…I see, Allmusic has him on the influences list for Jimmy Page. Good work.

aest 06 Oct 06

bring back the bevel!

Scott 06 Oct 06

Wow, Probably one of the best SVN posts in a while. Thought out, researched, and current. Thanks for the inspiration.

Ivan Minic 06 Oct 06

Some very nice sites you have there!

Mark Gallagher 06 Oct 06

Matt, One of the top 5 posts of all time for SvN. IMHO.

Related point - looking for new blends of color and patterns for the graphic design of your web site ?

Look for ideas at the bedding department of Neiman Marcus.

Keep up the good work.


Christopher K 06 Oct 06

>> ‘Look at web design these days: Gradients,

Why has the 2.o version of your site’s design has a gradient, while the older design had not?

Duncan 06 Oct 06

I find inspiration in all sorts of places. Sometimes it fits what I am looking for at the time, but usually it helps me with something totally different. You just have to go with the flow most times.

mike 07 Oct 06

never read your blog before, got here via photo matt, you brought up some good points. whenever I find true talent in music, it really inspires me and brings me to a higher level of trying to do better myself.

blogcruiser 07 Oct 06

Bravo… It is always easy to be the same but it sure can get boring… :)

Abhimanyu Ghoshal 07 Oct 06

I loved this article. You’re very right about all the points you mentioned. Great stuff!

Shaun 07 Oct 06

Have you looked at your own site? ;) “Gradients, bursts, big type, rounded corners, pastel colors”

Me Too 07 Oct 06

Shaun beat me to it. You should post this on a site that isn’t lock-step with your gripes.

Anonymous Coward 07 Oct 06

Shaun, the point here is that 37s started these trends. Now everyone has copying them which is why people need to look to new sources of inspiration.

wherestheexamples 07 Oct 06

This is a whine, not an insight.

If you’ve really go something to say why not at least toss in URLs for a dozen or so case studies. After all, you say this is everywhere. Why no examples then?

if this is a real trend rather than just whining about these very general design elements — I mean please, reflections and gradients are about as naturally occuring light phenomena as you will ever come across— show us specifically where they have been abused. Where’s this pattern of abuse you speak of?

Where can I see this horrid abuse in a way that I will be convinced that something specific is really being referred to rather than just being annoyed by vague references and innuendo.

Penguin Pete 07 Oct 06

Heh, it’s ironic. I re-did my website (see my link)(only the wallpaper gallery is left to go) a couple of months ago, and my inspiration was the rio desktop as shown in Plan 9 from Bell Labs operating system release 4. What did I end up with? Lots of pastels and big fonts.

I just can’t win!

Mobile360 07 Oct 06

I am having problems in developing a commercial web 2.0 appliction that is innovative and not the normal. Need to get the real hard core creative juices flowing.


regeya 07 Oct 06

I read this just as I was beginning work on launching a website, on a subject I’d not seen a website devoted to before. I’d become so frustrated that I was about to go digging through OSWD for a generic design. Now I don’t think I will.

Yes, dead-tree designers tend to rip each other off, too. I’m not entirely sure there’s an effective original design left anymore.

Naser 08 Oct 06

Couldn’t agree more. Voluptuousness and flamboyance of the web 2.0 world is getting rather cliche these days. I want something new and vibrant, not the same ole’ verdana or trebuchet MS crap.

Cheshire Dave 08 Oct 06

Echoing other comments above, posts like this one keep me coming back to SvN on a regular basis.

Another potential source of inspiration is one’s audience: What brings them to you specifically? What do they tend to be interested in away from your site (a corollary of Michael Bierut’s advice above), and how does that dovetail with your own outside interests? Questions like these can lead to meaningful, individual designs that set you apart from your peers.

Leaving bubbles and gradients aside, one of the things that’s inspiring about web 2.0 design is that it reaches for simplicity. Google Analytics has a great tool (site overlay) in which you can see where on your site your users are clicking (and where they never click). This seems like it would be enormously helpful in deciding how to simplify and make the experience better for your users. It’s not a perfect tool (it doesn’t always distinguish between two types of links on the screen that link to the same page), but it gives you some helpful indications.

David Esrati 08 Oct 06

It’s been said a million times, there is nothing original. It’s all in how you reinterpret the past.
My first boss in the design business, a very classy guy named Larry Holland once told me, a good designer isn’t original, he just has a bigger inventory of other peoples ideas to combine in a new way.
There has always been a connection between music and math too- two things that seem so different- but when you get to the really heavy math - it’s all about improvisation and figuring out new ways to solve problems.
“those that don’t know history, are doomed to repeat it” also applies- which is why it’s so important to study your craft- know the history and understand what made the great great.
Why did Bill Bernbach make such damn good ads for VW- was a factor of the time and place- as much as his clean approach.
If you are stuck where you are- the secret isn’t to go backwards, it’s to find a different direction to get to where you are- until it moves you where you didn’t know you wanted to go.
Thanks for inspiring me to ramble.

Jav 09 Oct 06

Compare Netvibes and FeedRaider to actualize two different approaches into basically the same thing in web 2.0 space.