Technology Is Narrowing Inspiration: Why Designers Need More Than The Internet

For some nostalgia, we need not go back far. Emperor Adam Holloway compares the learning environment for designers in the 1990s to the one dominated by the Internet today, arguing that the latter misses out on the joy of discovery.

It’s August 1997. Having recently graduated, it’s the first day of my first proper training. Things got real.

Having found my way to an impressive but daunting glass-fronted building in Camden, London, I negotiated reception and climbed a spiral staircase to find myself in full view, in the middle of an open office. Hoping to catch the eye of a friendly face, I enjoy the sparkling scene of a modern design studio.

While vestiges of the recent past (drawing boards, Rotring pens, magic markers, an airbrush gun, even an opto-mechanical transfer machine) appear in the corners, in general, it’s a hive of state-of-the-art technology.

I find myself sitting at a desk behind the latest Macintosh. With a screen deeper than it is, it’s a gray monolith of technological advancement. With “cloud technology” still thinking, my desk is covered with stacks of DVDs and floppy disks. With office communication still mostly verbal (e-mail hasn’t ruined our workday yet), I’m chatting unhesitatingly with colleges for the 20 minutes it takes me to ‘turn on’ my machine and open up the industry’s favorite weapons: QuarkXPress 4.0, Freehand 7.0, and Photoshop. 4.0.

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It seems hard to imagine a world where the internet is not central to everything. If you’ve ever ventured into the World Wide Web, your entry point will be Yahoo or Netscape Navigator. “Google” was just a silly word.

where is the library

With the internet still in its infancy, looking for visual inspiration to spark ideas was more of a manual task. Who remembers spending hours looking at Getty Images, while they were still standing on books, and then having to mop up the potholes? The studio had an extensive library, as it did most of the time, and taking the time to get a real education was for me.

There were books on art, architecture, film, product design, logo design, and typography. There, I discovered people like Jasper Johns, Bridget Riley, Frank Gehry, Ken Adam, Saul Bass, Dieter Rams, Paul Rand, and Josef Mueller-Brockmann.

I felt the freedom of Jasper Johns “0 to 9” and was excited about its potential printing applications. The brilliance of Bridget Riley’s work and how she achieves this vitality and energy using shapes. How Frank Gehry designed buildings that look more like sculptures, like the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao that opened that year. And Dieter Rams: If I’m being honest, it was less about his actual design and more about the fact that he had clear principles on which he judged every piece of work. I can go on. It was a time of learning and discovery.

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Enter the World Wide Web

Gone are the days of directing novice designers in the direction of the library. As with many areas of modern life, the Internet now plays a huge role in how and where we expand our knowledge and find the inspiration to spark our best ideas. Most media publications have now migrated entirely online, with quality creative blogs and forums proliferating.

As a result, we can find catalogs of designers’ works at the click of a button.

So why, with a much deeper pool of potential inspiration, does our field of vision seem to narrow? Why do I see the same sources of inspiration over and over again? Why inspiration has become less diverse in that Content, often through the traditional lens of “graphic design”. Where is the art, architecture, film or product design?

This is in no way a mockery of our young talent or an homage to what Back to My Day was like. Not only have we become almost completely dependent on the Internet; Our industry has progressed at an incredible speed. Designers now face very different challenges. Everything is faster, expectations are greater, with higher resolution and multichannel – all in a more complex and adversarial communications landscape.

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Back to the future

My point is that there is little surprise and more than a little predictability in online research. Simply entering a search criteria or visiting the same blog narrows your path of discovery. But losing yourself in a good library or gallery, or finding yourself in an unfamiliar place, can lead to even more discoveries and surprises. As my university’s David Hunt says, some of the best inspiration comes from “not looking for the thing you think you’re looking for”. This couldn’t be more true.

We owe it to our designers to continue to expand their field of inspiration. Encourage them to get away from their desk and look somewhere unexpected for inspiration. Buy some new books for your library. Ask your team to teach you something new. But most of all, give them space to enjoy, and the ownership time they lose themselves in the discovery process.

This can only lead to more relevant, unique and intelligent work.


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