Finding fresh inspiration 06 Oct 2006
36 comments Latest by Jav
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.
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 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.
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.
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.