Transcend plagiarism with real inspiration

Rubber chickens aside, Paul Smith had some sound advice to offer when he spoke at Pentagram last week (see Diary, page 32). Seek inspiration from the things around you, but don’t be a copyist, he said through slightly gritted teeth.

Smith has good reason to hate copyists. The rag trade is full of them, especially the high street chains. He spoke with wry amusement about the so-called customers who turn up in his shops, flashing corporate cards to buy this or that little number thinking none of his staff have twigged they’re going to rip it off stitch for stitch as soon as they’re back at base.

Outside fashion, rip-offs aren’t quite so literal. Less money is at stake in graphics, and it tends to take longer to turn out a copycat product than to run up a lookalike frock in a back street sweat shop. But with interiors, a “look” is often aped – witness the blond wood and white fashion shops born of the early Next – and just how many logos has Wolff Olins’ identity for Prudential spawned, taking its own cue directly from Henri Matisse?

Smith urges us to mine a deeper seam, to enrich our creativity. He’s not the first to find inspiration in strange places and to put an idea to work in an unlikely context – finding his own inspiration for a floral shirt, for example, in a humble packet of seeds. What about the art of Alan Fletcher and other great wits who delight in exploiting objets trouvés? Who but Fletcher could have created a “Chinese New Year” calendar using discarded stamps, tickets and bits of string to form the animals represented in the cycle – and do it so beautifully?

It takes a sharp mind and a skillful eye to get anywhere close, but an eclectic bent is the key. That means stepping outside the studio once in a while, looking around you and searching out the potential in all you see. Distil it down to a simple idea and there’s a chance you’ll bring freshness to that next project. The results could well provide that elusive “difference” great designs have – and you might even enjoy the process.

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