Technology Narrows Inspiration: Why Designers Need More From the Internet

No need to go back far for some adland nostalgia. Emperor Adam Holloway compares the learning environment of the 1990s to today’s internet-dominated system, arguing that the latter is missing out on the joy of discovery.

This is August 1997. As a fresh graduate, this was one of my first proper experiences. Things just happened.

After finding my way to an impressive but eerie glass building in London’s Camden borough, I negotiate reception and climb a spiral staircase to find myself in the middle of an open-plan office. Hoping to catch the eye of a friendly face, I paint a stunning view of a modern design studio.

Although remnants of the recent past (drawing boards, Rotring pens, magic markers, an airbrush gun, even a photomechanical transfer machine) are evident in the corners, overall this is a haven of cutting edge technology.

I find myself sitting at a desk behind a Macintosh most recently. With a screen that’s deeper than it is wide, it’s a gray monolith of technological advancement. With ‘cloud technology’ still blue sky thinking, my desk is covered with stacks of DVDs and floppy disks. Since office communication is still mostly verbal (email doesn’t disrupt our workday yet), I chat with colleges for 20 minutes, which is the time it takes to start up my machine and open my industry weapons of choice: QuarkXPress 4.0, Freehand 7.0, and Photoshop 4.0.

It seems difficult to imagine a world where the Internet is not the center of everything. If you are logged into the World Wide Web, your entry point will be Yahoo or Netscape Navigator. ‘Google’ was still a stupid word.

Where is the library?

Since the Internet was still in its infancy, looking for visual inspiration to spark ideas was more of a manual labor. Who remembers spending hours having to scan images when Getty Images was still book-based? The studio had a large library, as it did then, and spending time there was a real education for me.

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

I was taken with the freedom of Jasper Johns’ ‘0 to 9’ and excited by the potential typographic applications. The intelligence of Bridget Riley’s work and how she can achieve such vibrancy and energy using shapes. How Frank Gehry designed buildings that look more like sculptures, such as the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao opened that year. And Dieter Rams: if I’m honest, it wasn’t about his actual design, but more about the fact that he had clear principles by which he judged each piece. I could go on. It was a time of learning and discovery.

Access the World Wide Web

Gone are the days when we directed our young designers towards the library. As with many aspects of modern life, the internet now plays a major role in how and where we expand our knowledge and find inspiration to put our best ideas forward. Most media outlets have now fully migrated online, with the proliferation of high-profile creative blogs and forums.

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

So why is our field of vision narrowing with a significantly deeper pool of potential inspiration? Why do I keep seeing the same sources of inspiration over and over again? Why is inspiration becoming less diverse? content, mostly through a traditional “graphic design” lens. Where is art, architecture, film or product design?

This is in no way a slight to our young talent or what “in my time” looked like. Not only have we become almost completely dependent on the internet; our industry has advanced at an incredible rate. Designers now face very different challenges. Everything is faster, expectations are greater, higher fidelity and multi-channel – all in a significantly more complex and hostile communications landscape.

Back to the future

My point is that there are very few surprises and little predictability in online search. Entering a search criteria or visiting the same blogs narrows your path of discovery. But getting lost in a good bookstore or gallery or finding yourself in an unfamiliar place can yield more discoveries and surprises. As my colleague David Hunt says, some of the best inspiration comes from “not looking for what you think you’re looking for.” This couldn’t be more true.

We owe it to our designers to expand the sphere of inspiration. Encourage them to step away from their desks and look somewhere unexpected for inspiration. Buy new books for your library. Ask your teams to teach you something new. But most of all, it gives them space to have fun and lose themselves in the act of discovering time for ownership.

This can only result in more relevant, different and smarter work.

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