Good Designers Copy, Great Designers Feel

I have a selfish desire to learn more about what makes me, me. Some of that desire relates to questions about personality, but most of it has to do with an interest in my creative decision making. Over the last year I've spent time researching things that have a deep creative influence on me, and I discovered something interesting along the way...

Creative influence, at least in my case, is quantifiable. There aren't actually that many things that make me, me.

It's funny, when I started work on the "what makes me" project I was convinced that I was beginning some sort of life-long salmon run to the birthplace of my creativity, and that I'd be cataloging micro-influence and rare oddities forever. But what I discovered pretty early on is that I wasn't really looking for things at all, I was searching for people. Just a few incredible people who've created a ton of things that I love.

Let me give you an example. I love spaces with strong right angles. I love long spare corridors, and low couches. I love travertine floors and glass enclosures. I love the heavy, black steel skyscrapers that dot the Chicago skyline and the Barcelona Chairs that adorn their corporate interiors. The designer in me recognizes affinity for a particular sort of modern minimalism, something that I thought I'd cultivated personally over years of happenstance and intellectual exploration. But the reality is that it's simply not true. There was literally an architect guiding my perception. In this case, an architect by the name of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. He designed spaces and objects, and at various points in my life, in city after city, in photographs and books, I was drawn to them. Not because of my own special vision, but because Mies had incredible vision. His creative intention was so direct and so purposeful that the feeling and experience of the things he created resonated with and became part of me.

Some of the people I discovered, along with a summary of the areas that I believe they actively influence in me:

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
spacial sensibility, presence

Barbara Wojirsch, Dieter Rehm (ECM)
visual design, product design, patience

Manfred Eicher (ECM)
musical affinity, spacial sensibility, contemplation

Philip Glass
musical identity, obsessive repetition


So, what's happened now that I have this information about "what makes me?"

For starters, I have deep interest in the individuals that I discovered through this process. They're part of me. I realize now that these people are essentially the main source of creative influence in my life, and so I try hard to channel and remember them in my work.** I do that just by saying to myself "I'm channeling Philip Glass right now," and then I write a piece of music. 

No, the music that I'm making does not sound like Philip Glass. But I give myself permission to operate obsessively on the resolution of melody through repetition when I'm making my own music. No, the interfaces that I design don't look like ECM Album Covers from the 70s. But I give myself permission to remember Barbara's visual expression when I marry content with the interface throughout the process, and when I'm working to create a compelling hero image to market the product before launch. I give myself permission.

It feels good to let go of the construct of creative intellect now that I know I am the sum of parts. I can be honest with myself about why I like or dislike certain things, and I can understand more clearly why I'm making the decisions that I'm making. I know now that there are certain creative challenges I'll encounter that just don't align with my influence, and in those cases it will be hard for me to find solutions that align with my own creative intention.

But now that I'm purposely channeling these people that deeply inspire me, I feel strength and resolution to honor the deepest parts of who I am. I'm more honest with myself about the things that I'm copying and the things that I feel. 

**Designers have this culture story about the path to becoming great designers, and the early portion of the narrative is something like: you're learning the ropes and so you're busy copying (poorly) a bunch of things that inspire you that you want to try to replicate. And through that process you "learn to see", which is another way of saying that you learn to properly observe scale. That's not what I'm talking about.