“Good artists borrow, great artists steal”.
So goes the oft-repeated quote, normally attributed to Picasso, Wilde or Eliot. In researching the quote last week whilst preparing my final internal talk at Sky which reflected on my time here (to be posted shortly), I found this fascinating investigation into it’s providence. The full quote, it transpires, derives from a piece that TS Eliot wrote:
One of the surest tests [of the superiority or inferiority of a poet] is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different than that from which it is torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.
This ties in neatly to a principle that I have followed throughout my creative life, both in technology and in writing music: The gene pool for inspiration in any creative endeavour needs to run broad and deep. Replicating directly from within one’s peer group leads inevitably to watered down ideas and shuts off any possibility of producing original work. I’ve never understood those that only listen slavishly to one style of music, or those that repeat design tropes again and again because they are told that it is a ‘standard’. It has also shocked me how many times in creative brainstorms somebody has presented a portfolio of competitor’s work and said ‘we could just do this’. It is useful to refer to pre-existing work as a touchstone or mood-setting device, something to direct the conversation and provide a reference point, but to simply steal an idea and execute it with your client’s branding is unforgivable.
Some time ago I saw Contrast give a fascinating talk about expectations and convention that I still refer to on a regular basis. The slideshare seems to have disappeared but there’s a good rundown of the talk here. Key to innovation, they claimed, was the breaking of conventions. A wireframe IA derived from accepted wisdom can only really be designed and coded one way. Whilst this gives us consistency and a certain recieved robustness, it can also hold back progress and removes any possibility of new, better paradigms emerging (until somebody like Apple, with no regard for convention, comes along and does it anyway). Though there are clearly use cases for conventions, such as the symbol for a play-button or a traffic light system of colour coding (there was a lovely example of a ticket machine that chose to flag a successful purchase up with a bright red flashing light!), there are also clearly times to break such convention, particularly if one is moving away from that convention’s native environment and into a new context (c.f. my hatred of skeuomorphism and relief that Microsoft are bucking the trend with Windows 8).
Influence and inspiration are key factors of the creative process to be embraced, but they are at their most powerful when they are abstracted away from the task in hand and netted from the widest possible array of sources (authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest), then the concepts behind them transferred into the creative ideas as they emerge.
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Andrew Dobson has been building websites and interactive applications since 1996 and is Technical Director at Grand Union.
Andy regularly lectures on creative technology and other geek matters and writes, records and performs as Digitonal
He lives in North London with his family, the world of cat, and a righteous collection of classic electronica records.
The opinions expressed on this site are the authors own and do not state or reflect the views of his employer or clients.
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