The first investigative design I did was in graduate school. I was in my early 20s and learning about information design, when I went to see a play. I don’t remember the name of the play, or even whether it was any good, but I do remember being struck by the elegance of the play’s program. Afterward, I tracked down the typeface—Scala Sans—and tried to mimic the line length and leading in the most important print piece I was working on at the time: my résumé.
I was so proud of that résumé, but never felt like it was my own. Although I departed significantly from the original information design, I knew it was inspired by someone else’s work. Years later I went back to Carnegie Mellon to find that a course uses it as a “good example.” I still feel like a phony about the whole thing.
I’m not sure why, but depending on other people—for inspiration, for expertise, or for anything really—has never come easy for me. Last year, when I ran across a case study of the redesign for the New England Journal of Medicine, I was struck in the same way. And subsequently felt the same tension. I’d like to get past this, as some of the most fascinating discussions I’ve had, the most fantastic discoveries, have been inspired by something and someone else. Why not seek it out?
I just finished doing a competitive audit for a client—one of many I’ve done this summer. When starting any rigorous website project, it’s understood that we’ll look at—”borrow”—best practices from other experiences. If we never know the baseline, never look around, we can still improve on a model, but we won’t be able to measure that improvement. A close familiarity with Strunk & White (although I prefer the lesser-known Joseph Williams) provides us with the same benefits. Following all 43 Strunk & White principles will not make us good writers. But knowing the baseline, what is considered a best practice, will give us context by which to judge our work.
Being inspired by a form—whether its an aesthetic or functional one—is not only legitimate, it is recommended. Perhaps someday I’ll even feel justified to have mimicked a playbill.