It’s an old adage repeated by generations of designers: inspiration can come from anywhere. Good designers and artists draw inspiration from things seemingly very different from their core medium — graphic designers look at print design, print designers look at architecture, architects look at fabric patterns, fabric artists look at nature, and mentioning nature artists makes this a religious discussion. To limit your inspiration to your own craft is to get yourself stuck in a cycle of mediocrity, according to this view.
Yet it seems, based on some discussions I’ve had lately, that designers don’t always come to the same conclusions about useful knowledge. Some designers I know, even a few well-respected ones, read the same blogs, by the same people, writing the same books, talking at the same conferences, and scoff at the notion that a different perspective could be useful.
Thankfully, they must have started designing for the web after the whole standards thing picked up, else they would probably be dismissing standards-advocates as being useless diversions from their world of Dreamweaver, tables, and Flash.
Any web designer worth her paycheck should be able to take something valuable away from a conversation with an experienced print designer. That should be obvious, even if the print designer isn’t able to tell the web designer anything about CSS, and doesn’t realize the constraints inherent in web typography or having to use floats and negative margins to achieve layouts. The print designer has his own constraints, and solutions to one problem may help yield solutions to a very different problem — we never know where innovation will spark.
Getting Caught in the Homogeneity
But even more importantly, great designers should realize that they are able to get something out of a good conversation (or even a good lecture) with an articulate person from any field. No, you’re likely not going to have a discussion with a psychologist and then go and change the way you write CSS the following day, but you might realize that the way she spoke about perception really does have something to do with the way users are reacting to your design weeks later. No, that geologist may literally have never opened a web browser, but he likely knows a lot more than you about recognizing patterns and creating a taxonomy, and that might be useful to you down the line when you’re considering how to organize your site.
If you’re paying $1000 for a ticket to a conference featuring the same speakers whose blogs you’ve been reading for three years, I can understand that. If you pay to see them give roughly the same talks after that, I start to think that you might be the type of designer who will be producing the same level of design five years from now.
People who recognize this probably absorb things like TED Talks like a Shamwow. Even though maybe only one or two in ten talk about the web, they all have something to do with the web in some way, even if you have to reach for it. The latest CSS hackery may be great today, but it likely won’t matter a year or two from now when some other technique has rendered it obsolete. Learning about Gestalt’s theories of perception, though, will apply to interface design for as long as there are interfaces.
Patrick and I have had a couple of conversations lately about making a concerted effort to go to conferences, lectures, and other events that have absolutely nothing to do with our own fields. Again, you never know where innovation will spark.
For those concerned, no, I’m not going to be scheduling a geologist to give a Rocks for Jocks session at Refresh DC, but if someone happened to put together a regular local event which had interesting speakers from varied disciplines, I’d show up. :)