For some adland nostalgia, we don’t have to go far back. The Emperor’s Adam Holloway compares the learning environment for designers in the 90s to today’s internet-dominated system, saying the latter lacks the joy of discovery.
We are in August 1997. Recently graduated, it is the first day of my first real internship. Things got real.
After finding my way to an impressive but intimidating glass-fronted building in London’s Camden, I negotiate reception and climb a spiral staircase to find myself in full view, in the middle of an open-plan office. Hoping to catch the eye of a friendly face, I take in the resplendent view of a modern design studio.
While relics of the recent past (drawing boards, Rotring pens, magic markers, an airbrush gun, even a photomechanical transfer machine) are evident in the corners, overall it’s a hive of technology from point.
I find myself sitting at a desk behind the latest Macintosh. With a screen that’s deeper than it is wide, it’s a gray monolith of technological advancements. With “cloud technology” still thinking blue skies, my desk is covered in stacks of DVDs and floppy disks. Since communication in the office is still mostly verbal (email hasn’t ruined our working day yet), I chat idly with colleges for the 20 minutes it takes me to “boot up” my machine and open the industry’s weapons of choice: QuarkXPress 4.0, Freehand 7.0 and Photoshop 4.0.
It seems difficult to imagine a world where the Internet would not be at the center of everything. If you ventured onto the World Wide Web, your entry point would be Yahoo or Netscape Navigator. “Google” was still just a stupid word.
Where is the library?
With the internet still in its infancy, finding visual inspiration to spark ideas used to be a more manual task. Who remembers spending hours searching Getty Images, when it was still a book, and then having to scan the photos? The studio had a full library, like most at the time, and spending time there was a real education 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 Müller-Brockmann.
I was fascinated by the freedom of Jasper Johns’ ‘0 to 9’ and excited about the potential typographic applications. The intelligence of Bridget Riley’s work and how she was able to achieve such dynamism and energy using forms. How Frank Gehry designed buildings that look more like sculptures, like the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao which 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 against which he judged every job. I could go on. It was a period of learning and discovery.
Enter the World Wide Web
Gone are the days of directing our junior designers to the library. As in many areas of modern life, the internet now plays an important role in how and where we expand our knowledge and find inspiration to spark our best ideas. Most media publications have now fully migrated online, with a proliferation of high-calibre creative blogs and forums.
As a result, we can find catalogs of designer work in a click.
So why is it that with a much deeper pool of potential inspiration, it feels like our field of vision is shrinking? Why do I see the same sources of inspiration over and over again? Why does inspiration become less and less varied? contents, mainly through the traditional prism of “graphic design”. Where is the art, architecture, film or product design?
This is in no way an insult to our young talent or a tribute to what it was “back then”. Not only have we become almost entirely dependent on the Internet; our industry has evolved at an incredible speed. Designers now face very different challenges. Everything is faster, expectations are higher, in higher definition and multi-channel – all in a much more complicated and hostile communication landscape.
Back to the future
What I mean is that there is very little surprise and more than a little predictability in online research. Simply entering a search term or visiting the same blogs narrows your path to discovery. But getting lost in a good bookstore or gallery, or finding yourself in an unknown place, can bring many more discoveries and surprises. As my colleague David Hunt says, one of the best sources of inspiration is “not looking for what you think you’re looking for”. It couldn’t be truer.
We owe it to our creators to continue to broaden their field of inspiration. Encourage them to step away from their desks and seek inspiration in an unexpected place. Buy new books for your library. Ask your teams to teach you something new. But above all give them the space to have fun, and the time to lose themselves in the act of discovery.
This can only lead to more relevant, distinctive and intelligent work.
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