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Technology is narrowing inspiration: why designers need more than the internet

By Adam Holloway | Chief creative officer



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December 8, 2022 | 8 min read

For some adland nostalgia, we don’t need to go back far. Emperor’s Adam Holloway compares designers' learning environment in the 90s to today's internet-dominated system, arguing that the latter misses the joy of discovery.

The Guggenheim Museum Blibao

Designers should draw inspiration from architects, film and product design, says Adam Holloway / Antonio Gabola via Unsplash

It’s August 1997. Having recently graduated, it’s day one of my first proper internship. Things have just got real.

Having found my way to an impressive but daunting glass-fronted building in London’s Camden, I negotiate reception and ascend a spiral staircase to find myself on full view, in the middle of an open plan office. Hoping to catch the eye of a friendly face, I take in the resplendent vista of a modern design studio.

While relics of a 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 cutting-edge technology.

I find myself seated at a desk behind the latest Macintosh. With a screen deeper than it is wide, it’s a grey monolith of technological advancement. With ‘cloud technology’ still blue-sky thinking, my desk is covered in stacks of DVDs and floppy discs. As office communication is still predominately verbal (email is yet to ruin our working day) I chat idly with colleges for the 20 minutes it takes me to ‘boot up’ my machine and open the industry weapons of choice: QuarkXPress 4.0, Freehand 7.0 and Photoshop 4.0.

It seems hard to imagine a world where the internet wasn’t central to everything. If you did venture onto the world wide web, your entry point would be Yahoo or Netscape Navigator. ‘Google’ was still just a silly word.

Where’s the library?

With the internet still in its infancy, searching for visual inspiration to spark ideas was a more manual task. Who remembers spending hours searching Getty Images, while it was still book-based, then having to scan the pitctures? The studio had a comprehensive library, as did most at the time, and spending time there was a real education for me.

There were books about 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 taken with the freedom of Jasper Johns’ ‘0 through 9’ and being excited about potential typographic applications. The intelligence of Bridget Riley’s work and how she could achieve such vibrancy and energy using shapes. How Frank Gehry designed buildings that look more like sculpture, like Guggenheim Museum Bilbao which opened that year. And Dieter Rams: if I’m honest, it was less about his actual design and more about the fact he had clear principles against which he judged every single piece of work. I could go on. It was a time of learning and discovery.

Enter the world wide web

Gone are the days of pointing our junior designers in the direction of the library. As with many areas of modern-day life, the internet now plays a huge part in how and where we broaden our knowledge and find inspiration to spark our best ideas. Most media publications have now fully migrated online, with a proliferation of high-caliber creative blogs and forums.

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

So why is it that with a significantly deeper pool of potential inspiration, it feels like our field of vision is narrowing? Why am I seeing the same sources of inspiration again and again? Why is inspiration becoming way less varied in its content, mostly through the traditional lens of ‘graphic design’. Where is the art, architecture, film, or product design?

This is in no way a slight on our young talent or a homage to what it was like ‘back in my day’. Not only have we become almost fully reliant on the internet; our industry has moved on at incredible speed. Designers now face very different challenges. Everything is faster, expectations greater, in higher definition and multichannel – all in a significantly more complicated and hostile communications landscape.

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Back to the future

My point is, there is very little surprise and more than a little predictability in searching online. The very act of entering a search criterion or visiting the same blogs narrows your path of discovery. But losing yourself in a good bookshop or gallery, or finding yourself in an unfamiliar place, can yield far more discoveries and surprises. As my colleague David Hunt says, some of the best inspiration comes from “not looking for the thing you think you’re looking for”. This couldn’t be truer.

We owe it to our designers to keep broadening their sphere of inspiration. Encourage them to get away from their desks and look somewhere unexpected for inspiration. Buy some new books for your library. Ask your teams to teach you something new. But most of all give them the space to have fun, and the time to properly lose themselves in the act of discovery.

This can only result in more relevant, distinctive and intelligent work.

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