Copy cat

It’s one thing for designers to have heroes, but that shouldn’t necessarily lead to emulation – there’s nothing worse than a bad imitation, says Jim Davies

On the face of it, Johan Cruyff, Al Green and PG Wodehouse don’t have a lot in common – but to me they do. You see, they’re all heroes of mine.

If I’m feeling hacked off, off-colour, or just off the pace, they’re a sure-fire pick-me-up. A few bars of ‘I’m So In Love With You’ are guaranteed to lift the soul; a couple of paragraphs of ‘What Ho! Jeeves’, will soften the grumpiest of moods; and picturing that sublime moment in the 1974 World Cup, when Cruyff’s lightning turn dizzied a Swedish defender to the turf, always brings a warm glow to the half of me which is Dutch.

If these three disparate icons share anything, it’s a seemingly effortless grace – a total mastery of their art. And, in their different ways, they keep me on my toes, give me something to try to live up to.

Most graphic designers I’ve come across have their personal heroes too. Painters, poets, authors, musicians, film-makers, animators – artists of all kinds whose influence and personality feeds into their lives and work. Often, too, they admire fellow designers – but tellingly, it’s mainly those whose work is quite different to their own. Like the highly controlled editorial designer I know who adores the graphic abandon of Stefan Sagmeister. Or the graphic radical, who has a deep-seated respect for the rigour and discipline of Josef Muller-Brockmann.

Admiration doesn’t have to mean emulation. Appreciating a piece of work that you couldn’t have produced in a million years is just as valid as a pang of envy because someone got that great idea in before you. Recognising what makes you different, and the qualities you do or don’t have, is a good way of pinpointing and playing to your strengths.

You may not be aware of what attracts you to a particular designer, but, chances are, there’s a compelling subconscious reason. They may prick your conscience, open your mind, share a point of reference. You may be impressed by their boldness, their finesse, their humour, their originality. But, ultimately, it probably says more about you than it does about them. Like the clothes you choose to wear, or your taste in music, your design preferences are a revealing insight into what makes you tick.

On the other hand, if you really admire another designer’s work, there’s always a temptation to just pinch it. In a way, intellectual theft is the sincerest form of flattery – a touching homage. And it’s not as if appropriating ideas or copying styles is anything new. If it’s done well, good luck to you – but remember, there’s nothing worse than a bad imitation.

Of course, it’s designers with the most recognisable signatures who are most copied. They’re often larger-than-life characters, with carefully cultivated public personas and design groupies in every major international cultural centre. But it’s a big mistake to confuse the work and the person responsible for it. I remember eagerly meeting a high-profile designer whose work I’d thought of as witty and wonderful, and finding them anything but. I came away hugely disappointed, half thinking I’d hooked up with an imposter. It’s like coming face to face with that foxy woman you’ve worshipped from afar, and finding she speaks like Julie Burchill, with all the charm of Rab C Nesbitt.

Now, please excuse me, I’m just off to put in some much-needed work on my Cruyff turn.

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