As students of design, we were introduced to the history of our industry, how significant designers went about solving problems, and how the influences of their time were evident in their work. We learnt that artists and designers influenced and pushed their counterparts to break new ground. We were taught how designers within a certain period referenced each other, and how their work had similar traits that defined the genre: Mid-Century, Art Nouveau and Futurism, for example. The posters above are from the Bauhaus movement in the 1920s and both use similar references motifs.
We do the same today. When we start a job, we tend to use references as a way to categorise design directions. We find that the written word is subjective and can be misinterpreted easily, yet pictures tell a thousand words. We can understand what clients want from tone and palette easily, which can save a lot of time and frustration.
Good practice in a design studio, but that’s where influence should end.
We are all exposed to thousands of messages and graphics every day, so it makes sense that we sometimes subconsciously bring things into our design work. Innocent influence can wrongly be classed as copying. After all, design is communication, and if referencing certain ideas helps the communication to work harder, then referencing is fine – but only when you thoroughly understand the work you’re referencing.
Every studio should have its own checklist to make sure something is original; the best answer for that is experience. We look at local and international design all the time to see what others are doing in our industry. By doing this we become a filter for our own and others’ work, but it’s hard when you’re deep into a project to see the wood for the trees.
There was an experiment done in the UK where two creatives were taken to an office to take a brief on a fictitious product. On the way, they were subliminally exposed to several key influences: a zoo, a harp, some strategically placed posters. Surprisingly (or perhaps not so surprisingly), when they were asked to do a quick design for the product, the influences all appeared in their concepts.
The creatives couldn’t recall seeing the references but they definitely had an impact on their subconscious minds. Point being, it can be hard to prevent the things you’ve seen or heard recently from influencing your work.
Use influence to your advantage, but always be careful of plagiarism. In the visual example above, it’s clearly evident what Harold’s were doing to get a kick start for their brand. This goes way beyond referencing or influence – it’s blatant copying. As the saying goes, stealing from one is plagiarism. Stealing from many is research.