Inspiration vs. Imitation

Pročitajte šta uspešna mlada njujorška dizajnerka Džesika Hiš kaže o razlici između inspiracije i imitacije. Gde je granica.

Inspiration vs. Imitation

 Every now and then I get a really lovely email from an aspiring letterer that is about to publish a passion project of his or her own. They tell me my work was an inspiration and that they can’t wait to share their creation with the world. I feel all warm and fuzzy inside for a moment…until I click on their link and realize that much of what they intend to publish is nearly a direct tracing of my work.

A lot of established illustrators and designers deal with the same thing—students or young professionals that rip them off without realizing it. Addressing these young designers can be really heartbreaking because you know that they had the purest of intentions. So here’s a little post to all the hungry, young designers that are struggling to find their own voice, but end up a bit too close to their inspirations. There are definitely people that maliciously rip artists off left and right, and this post is not for them. They are evil and cannot be helped.

1. It’s OK to copy people’s work. [GIANT ASTERISK!]

To be a good artist / letterer / designer / guitar player it takes practice. A lot of it. More than you can even fathom when you’re starting out. If you wanted to become a great guitar player, you wouldn’t buy a fancy guitar and immediately start composing songs… you would pick up a song book, or look up some tablature music on the internet, and teach yourself how to play using other people’s music. You would emulate the greats and learn from them, as they learned from others in the past. You’d spend hours alone trying to be like Jimi Hendrix or Jimmy Page or whomever you really admired. Then, once you were well practiced and felt confident in your abilities to play, you’d form a band, you’d write your own songs, and you’d find your own voice.

When you’re learning, it’s not wrong to copy people—to learn from them the way that they learned from others before them. What many young artists have a problem realizing though, is that the work you create while practicing and learning is completely separate of what you do professionally. Just because you can play OK Computer cover to cover doesn’t mean you should record an album of your renditions and release them under your name. You know that any such action would leave you up to your eyeballs in legal problems. Copy all you wish in private, and once you feel confident in your skills, create your own original public work.

2. Not everything you make should be on the internet.

Young designers and illustrators are plagued by an issue that didn’t really affect those of us that are in our late 20s or older—they think that everything they ever create should be published to the internet. Blogs weren’t really in full swing when I graduated college. Swiss Miss was in its infancy. Behance didn’t exist. Dribbble wasn’t even a twinkle in Dan Cederholm’s eye. As graduating college students, we were told that having a website was important so that future employers could check us out, not so that the dieline could post about us and an army of bored designers could drool over our work during their lunchbreaks.

When you’re starting out and have a teeny portfolio of student work, it can be very very tempting to publish everything you’re working on, whether it’s practice or actual published work. It’s especially hard because, more often than not, the work you’re doing at your day job is less than inspiring when you are starting out. It will be really hard to resist showing off the illustration you created that was inspired heavily by one of your heroes, because in reality it is probably one of the nicest things you’ve made. But that’s the thing, every new thing you make will be (should be) the nicest thing you’ve made so far, because you’re learning and getting better with each and every new project. Resist posting the practice—the piece that you know is too close to its inspiration. Let that practice fuel original work and then publish to your heart’s content.

3. Diversify your inspirations.

I did a little post about inspiration vs. imitation before, and one of the main points was that it is easy to accidentally rip people off if your inspirations are too limited. If you’re heavily inspired by only two people, your work will look like a combination of those two people’s work. The more work you look at and the more work you are inspired by, the more diluted those inspirations become in your own work. Your ultimate goal should be for people to look at your work and NOT immediately think “oh she is a big fan of this person”. If you diversify your inspirations, the chances of this happening become much smaller.

4. History is important.

Your contemporaries might seem like the most obvious place to start when it comes to finding inspiration, but look beyond them. Have you ever gone on a music site to look up a band’s inspirations and found all kinds of cool older bands you liked? You were opened up to a whole new world of awesome music and at the same time formed completely new opinions about the contemporary band you were into. The same goes for design and illustration—if you’re only looking at your peers for inspiration, you’re not getting the whole picture. They were inspired by artists from the past and found a way to create their own original work—look at their inspirations and the people that inspired them as far back as you can dig. If you’re inspired by both historical sources and contemporary artists, it is much easier to create work that feels fresh and new.

5. Train your eye.

In order to avoid ripping other artists off, you have to first be able to identify other people’s work. Before you went to art school, art was just one big category that everything non-boring fell into. The more you learned the more you started to see the differences in technique, the themes that happened during specific movements, the way one artists put brush to canvas vs. another. By the time you graduated you could hopefully tell the difference between a Picasso and a Braque, even though when you were a freshman it all just looked the same.

As you study design and illustration, something similar will happen. At first all print-makery illustrators will look the same, but soon you’ll be able to point out who did what and eventually the differences will become so clear that you’ll be shocked when your non-art friends don’t see them. And then the nerds will welcome you into their world with a parade and cupcakes.
When you are starting out, you accidentally rip people off all the time because your eye just doesn’t see the difference between what you’re doing and what someone you’re inspired by is doing. You think (anti-awesome) thoughts like “she doesn’t own swashes!”. Over time though, once you spend a few months examining a lot of people’s work, you can look at 10 different script letterers and think “OMG they are SO different! How did I not see it!” If you don’t train yourself to spot the differences, you’ll never be able to see them in your own work and it will be very difficult to make anything original.

6. Just because it’s not illegal doesn’t mean it’s ethical.

Something that I sadly hear too much is that “it’s not illegal to copy someone’s style”. Sure, if you create an illustration that is completely derivative of someone else but not a direct rip-off or tracing, they might have a hard time suing you. That doesn’t make it OK to make derivative work. Remember when you were on a road trip as a kid and your brother played the “I’m not touching you” game by putting his hand/finger as close as possible to your face without actually touching it? It annoyed the shit out of you. When you complained to your parents, he shouted “but I didn’t touch her!” Sure. What he did wasn’t a total violation of your space, but it didn’t feel good, right? If your parents weren’t completely annoyed with the both of you by then they’d hopefully explain that just because he wasn’t officially breaking the rules it didn’t make what he was doing OK. It’s very unethical to knowingly copy someone else’s illustration style when not doing work that is an obvious homage to them. It is illegal to actually copy someone’s intellectual property or claim all or part of their work as your own. If you’ve ever retorted with “well it’s not illegal” you already know you’ve done something wrong and are just trying to justify your actions.

7. Everybody knows everybody.

The design and illustration community is teeny tiny. It’s shocking how many people in our world know and talk to each other regularly. Thanks to the internet, fans can reach out to artists and alert them of people ripping them off. There’s even whole blogs set up to watch over this kind of stuff. If you’re ripping people off on purpose, I’m glad that there are a thousand ways for you to get caught and that there are oodles of people out there that will secretly think you are a bad person. If you’re ripping someone off accidentally, this can be severely detrimental to your career without you even knowing it. When you try to apply for a job with a portfolio full of derivative work you might not get the job and never know why. That person took one look at your portfolio and thought “they’re rippin-off my friend!” and then politely showed you the door. It seems crazy that this would happen, but I get emails all the time from friends pointing out people that applied for internships with portfolios of work that rips-off everyone we know. It is very very important to acknowledge your inspirations and try to distance yourself from them as much as possible.

Whenever I’m alerted of a possible rip-offer, I try my best to educate rather than chastise and gently nudge them to find their own voice. If you see someone ripping-off someone you know or admire, I suggest you do the same—initiate the conversation as a helpful and concerned new friend, not an angry enemy. Most of the time the offenders aren’t aware of how obvious their inspiration sources are. We’re all guilty of it when we’re starting out, but hopefully this article will remind some of you to keep that practice work out of your portfolio, which will keep the angry blog commenters off your back.

Always keep practicing (and practicing, and practicing), keep looking at beautiful work, keep researching others to look up to and be inspired by. In no time you’ll be making beautiful original work of your own.

Jonathan Hoefler wrote an amazing comment that I want to share as a part of the post:
If I can propose an 8th point, which is especially apropos in the type design world: “There’s a difference between making an imitation and selling it.”
At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, you’ll often find high school students with their sketchbooks out, camped out in front of the Giottos and Dürers. It’s a time-honored way of learning: see, try to reproduce, and discover. I think about this whenever I receive a heads-up that someone had made a derivative of one of our fonts: the Requiem-with-snipped-off-serifs that we’ll see in a font distributor’s website, or the Gotham-with-a-different-M that’s profiled to great applause on some online showcase. What makes these acts so troubling — and, by the way, unquestionably illegal (it’s not at all a grey area) — but makes the eager high schooler so charming?
To me, the key difference is that the aspiring serif-clipper is not only passing off the artist’s work as his own, but is doing real damage to the artist he purportedly admires by competing in the same marketplace. It’s a time-consuming and expensive distraction to investigate these things, but one we’re compelled to do every single time, since each purchase of a knockoff represents lost revenue. And when we share these discoveries with the organizations that have unwittingly bought the knockoffs, it invariably reflects poorly on our young serif-clipper: if there was a relationship there, it is now ended. Everybody loses.
But the 17 year old with the sketchpad is entirely different. He’s not passing off his Velasquez as a Velasquez, and he’s not passing it off as his own — in fact, he’s not passing it off at all. It’s a learning exercise, and if it’s presented at all, it’s always with the appropriate context. (“I did this in art class, from the Gubbio Studiolo at the Met.”) It also reveals what young artists finds fascinating, what they struggled with, and what they learned. It’s been my experience that these kinds of acts are met with great encouragement and support from the professional community.
Frederic Goudy’s commandment to typographers was “stop stealing sheep.” My advice to aspiring type designers is “stop selling sheep.”
A few commenters wanted to see/show actual examples of blatant-ripoffs. I’m choosing not to post examples because the line between a rip-off and something “heavily inspired-by but still passable” is so blurry. I think by showing concrete examples I would be trying to make crystal-clear something that generally isn’t. Former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said that he didn’t want to define exactly what hard-core pornography was, stating “I know it when I see it”. You definitely know derivative work when you see it, and the more you pay attention to contemporary design and illustration as well as knowing your history, the easier it is to spot. If you’re inexperienced, everything looks like porn, if you know what you’re talking about you can spot the real stuff from “artful photography” before you can blink. The key is to not cry “porn” before you know what you’re talking about. So study up!

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