Inspiration, Cannibalism & Theft

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“Good artists copy. Great artists steal.”

These six simple words are often quoted. Most people ascribe them to Pablo Picasso, though there is no evidence that the enigmatic artistic genius ever actually spoke them. Others have cited Igor Stravinsky or William Faulkner as the source. No matter. This article is not about who first said these two short sentences; it’s about the truth which resides within them.

We like to think that inspiration arrives out of the ether, a gift from the gods bestowed upon us as a reward for our persistence in whichever creative field we work. The truth, however, is quite different. Inspiration derives from an imprecise blend of all our lived experiences together with our knowledge and appreciation of the creative work of others, which we have seen, listened to or read. The creative act is the work of our unconscious mind, which forms new and surprising expressions of all that we have assimilated, through living or through observing the work of others.

Which work you choose to look to for inspiration and where you seek it will determine whether you’re a great creative, or just, merely, good.

Over the years as a Creative Director I’ve often led teams working on brand identity projects, usually for TV channels. Once we’ve got our heads round the brief, I encourage my collaborators to go off and hunt around for references that could be helpful to kick off our creative journey. The references could be from anywhere: painting, photography, book covers, album sleeves, even type on a roadside sign for burgers …

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Occasionally though a designer will come back with another TV brand identity as a reference. Whenever this happens my soul weeps. You see as soon as you draw inspiration from within your own genre, you step off the shining path of creative righteousness, and take the dank, dismal stairs down to the basement of mediocrity, where all that is left for you is to feast on the still warm carcasses of your peers. Seeking inspiration from within the limits of your own genre is cannibalism. And nobody — well, almost nobody — wants to be a cannibal.

The trick is to hunt for references beyond the creative arena in which you work.

A few years back I was given a brief to create a new cinema ident for Studiocanal. The project was as exciting as it was daunting. Get it right and we’d make something which would play out in the cinema before some of today’s most innovative and rewarding movies. Get it wrong and … well, the project would just have gone to someone else.

I chose to work with the charming & talented Grant Gilbert of DBLG. Early on in the process Grant brought in the image below as a reference …

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It’s a shot of an installation by the artist Cornelia Parker called Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View. Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View is actually a garden shed. Cornelia filled the shed with junk from car boot sales and then asked the army to blow it up. Looking at this was a really important step in our creative journey. Our finished ident, which you can watch here, bears no resemblance to Cornelia’s shed. But seeing the exploded fragments hanging in space gave us the idea of creating our own installation of glass fragments through which we could project the abstract forms of Studiocanal movies.

Steve Jobs was one of those who ascribed the opening quote to Picasso. He mentions it in an interview you can watch here. In the same interview he describes Apple’s approach to theft …

‘It comes down to trying to expose yourself to the best things that humans have done and then try and bring those things into what you’re doing. We have always been shameless about stealing great ideas. And I think part of what made the Macintosh great was that the people working on it were musicians and poets and artists and zoologists and historians.’

So when it comes to inspiration in the peculiar moral universe of creativity remember this: it’s OK to steal. Stealing is good. So long as it’s from another genre. To steal is to make something, which wasn’t yours, your own. And you make it your own by reinterpreting it within your own field.

But copying from within your own genre is cannibalism.

And cannibalism?

Well, that’s beyond the pale …

Richard Holman is a writer, speaker & thinker on creativity. To find out more about the Masterclass sessions he runs on creative thinking click here.

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I write, think & speak about the creative process. For more inspiration go to or listen to my podcast The Wind Thieved Hat on iTunes.

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