Daily, we as designers try to create something genuine and compelling, that both suits some mood or feeling that we’ve seen before while remaining original, and maybe even pioneering. Unfortunately, breaking grounds is not a daily activity that anyone can maintain, and more often than we might like to admit, uninspired days show up.
Naturally, we all turn to magazines, books, movies and (of course) the internet for inspiration. However, one could argue that this inspiration seeking is actively giving up your organic ideas; despite your best efforts you will be subconsciously copying something from another designer. However, if you spent your life as designer trying to stay current while not imitating anything that you see, you would lose your mind.
Instead, we call it research. We research what colour scheme will convey the era/tone that we are seeking. We research different typographic styles that might suit our needs. We research competitors, and find out what other designers have done in the same space. We research cultural impact, demographic, current trends, and then we research a thousand other things. Certainly, I will be the first to advocate for the necessity of research - but it is an awful lot of inspiration, and perhaps difficult to distinguish from imitation after you’ve done enough of it.
Somewhere between a design miracle, where the uninspired arrive at a never before seen solution and a carbon copy there is a reasonable middle ground. Something which (I think) most designers strive for, but ultimately a skill which is perfected over time. If you are truly inspired by another’s design, or admire an element, and therefore reinvent it in your own designs, you are no copy-cat in my books. As an artist, drawing inspiration from other artists is critical to pushing trends forward. Equally critical is a designers responsibility to police themselves, and feel confident that any given project is new and original, even if it is based off a collection of other artists.
But, if you’re still having trouble distinguishing inspiration from imitation, I propose an alternate solution to you: Copy now, for inspiration later.
Rather then just scroll through tumblr & dribbble while you drink your morning coffee, assuming that you’re taking it all in (you’re not), save anything that you think is new and interesting. This is particularly effective for typography - so I will follow that as my example.
Take them into illustrator or photoshop, and copy them verbatim. For typography, this means sourcing the font (or closest approximation that’s not an arm & a leg), changing the kerning, style, illustrating when required and on and on.
Great, now you’ve got all this work that you can’t use. Real helpful. But do 10 of them, or 20 or as many as you can make time for, and now you have a large repertoire of solutions. You’re not going to remember that you’ve copied someone to learn it, and it’s not going to look like you copied them when you’re finished. Instead, now when you find yourself stuck trying to make a vintage label, you won’t remember the 10 labels you practiced, you’ll just remember that a small caps serif that has the kerning really stretched out might just do the trick.