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Creativity by Imitation, for Designers and Other Creatives

By Encer Design, a division of The Oyemaja Group.

“If you hang around 5 idiots, you are the sixth.”

You have heard this from YouTube motivational speakers, CEOs, your grandma, your school teachers. Even the bible agrees when it says “walk with the wise and become wise, for a companion of fools suffers harm”.

Why is everyone so d*mn worked up about idiots? This is because the power of association is really potent. People rub off on other people; this is how we develop our personalities. A child, for instance, is born a clean-slate. As he grows, he begins to absorb all that information in his environment. He learns and does things he sees people around him do. If you have always hustled on the harsh and fast streets of Lagos, you’d most likely be energetic and enjoy being outside. The chances of turning out as an introvert may be low. On the contrary, if you were born into a quiet luxurious life with sweet parents, you would really hate Lagos.

“Okay okay, Encer. Go straight to the point please? What does this have to do with a designer? If I hang around Leonardo Da Vinci, will I be able to paint the Mona Lisa?”

No, not exactly. While it applies to behaviour, it might not necessarily apply to skills. Nevertheless, the foundational reasoning remains the same – imitation. You become an idiot when you hang around 5 idiots because you begin to imitate their ways and patterns of thinking. For a company of idiots and a company of designers, the foundation is the same – imitation. Imitation is an act of using something as model for another thing. It is basically copying.

“Oyemaja, but not everybody imitates/copies. Some works are really original.”

You’re looking at it the wrong way. Blind, mindless copying is discouraged. It attracts penalties under copyright or trademark law, save for some exception. But, imitation in the context of inspiration is a different stew.

Nothing is created out of nothing. No one born of a woman came to this earth with in-born knowledge. That’s right. “Sense no be follow-come.” Every seemingly new idea was at least inspired by an existing phenomenon. For instance, no good research is made without sources. The more your references, the richer your research. Creative has even been described as taking existing ideas and combining them in a new way.

You’d ask what the point of innovation is. Innovation may connote something new, but how new is new, really? Something may appear as a first, but a deeper philosophical critique will reveal that it’s not. When the Wright brothers invented the aeroplane, that was definitely a first. But they were, in essence, inspired by something already existing – birds; flight. Planes are, on a close observation designed like birds. This is both functional and aesthetic. Isaac newton theorized gravity from watching an apple fall. Everything screams INSPIRATION.

“Back to designers, Oyemaja. Please.”

On it. Since no idea is foundationally new, graphic designs aren’t either. A great designer is one who is able to communicate a message what resonates with an audience. How do objects resonate with people? It reminds them of something or someone. If your design does not resonate with your audience or customers, your design is not really communicating. That’s not a very good design. Therefore, designers study and pick up inspiration from things that resonate with people. A brand designer may make an illustration or similitude of a cheetah for a delivery company. He does this to signify speed of delivery. He has drawn inspiration from the animal. His mark has ‘imitated the cheetah’.

“I see. What about a designer imitating another designer’s work?”

This is the good part. You just got a fat brief from Elon Musk. Design a logo for Space travel. Elon wants to fly to Pluto. He’s paying you a million dollars. You gotta do a pretty decent job. What is the first thing you’d must likely do? You run to big daddy Google. Or Behance, Dribbble, Instagram, anywhere you can run to. You’re on a search for some inspiration. Your keywords – Space, Universe, Astronomy, Mars. You even google “Logos that Elon Musk will really love” just to be sure. It’s a million dollars we talking’bout buddy.

Google is helping. Dribbble is giving you some suggestions. You are sketching down ideas. Are you copying at that point? Yes and No. Yes, because all these ideas by other graphic designers are popping up and you are trying to imitate and sketch something that will make Elon happy. No, because you don’t want Elon Musk finding out that he paid you a million dollars for a logo you copied.

Imitation, ‘creative imitation’ is healthy because you are studying how designers have been able to approach the problem you are facing. How have designers illustrated space travel? You read case studies. You observe and sketch. You sample and ask important questions. Then, you come up with your own distinctive mark. Sometimes your distinctive mark might appear similar to another design. This is allowed, so far it does not infringe on another company’s trademark.

Designers are allowed to be creative by imitation. It helps and works because humans are made to imitate.

Hope this helps,




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