The other day a co-worker complained about the abundance of social media outlets for collecting and organizing design inspiration. There’s Pinterest, Twitter, Facebook, Delicious, Tumblr, Flickr, Stumbleupon, and the list goes on. Most designers read the same blogs and try to be the first of their friends to retweet or forward on interesting material. He lamented that because the sources of our information are all the same and just repeated and broadcast across different platforms, our designs end up looking the same. Designers have become content aggregators instead of content creators. While mash-ups exhibit lateral thinking and collaboration, they also lead to designs without any mark of individual who created them.
In his classic, East of Eden, John Steinbeck wrote about the dangers of an individual facing the collective, industrial society at the turn of the 19th century. According to Steinbeck, the greatest danger is losing the creative individual voice in a collective, systematic world. Steinbeck writes about the industrial forces at play during his life, “when our food and clothing and housing are all born in the complication of mass production, mass method is bound to get into our thinking and to eliminate all other thinking.” Similarly, as designers inspired by the same material, the same mass thinking, our thinking reverts back to the collective voice over the individual voice.
For our designs to express our individual creativity, we must first find our individual voice and ask ourselves three questions Steinbeck asked, “What do I believe in? What must I fight for and what must I fight against?” When we do this, we’ll find our voice to express in our work. This however, cannot be done unless designers chose to step away from the media streams and find their own, individual sources of inspiration, their own voice apart from the crowd. Then, these individuals must become creators, not consumers.
An inspirational excerpt from Steinbeck’s East of Eden:
“I don’t know how it will be in the years to come. There are monstrous changes taking place in the world, forces shaping a future whose face we do not know. Some of these forces seem evil to us, perhaps not in themselves but because their tendency is to eliminate other things we hold good. It is true that two men can lift a bigger stone than one man. A group can build automobiles quicker and better than one man, and bread from a huge factory is cheaper and more uniform. When our food and clothing and housing are all born in the complication of mass production, mass method is bound to get into our thinking and to eliminate all other thinking. In our time mass or collective production has entered our economics, our politics, and even our religion, so that some nations have substituted the idea collective for the idea God. This is a great tension in the world, tension toward a breaking point, and men are unhappy and confused.
At such time it seems natural and good to me to ask myself these questions. What do I believe in? What must I fight for and what must I fight against?
Our species is the only creative species, and it has only one creative instrument, the individual mind and spirit of a man. Nothing was ever created by two men. There are no good collaborations, whether in music, in art, in poetry, in mathematics, in philosophy. Once the miracle of creation has taken place, the group can build and extend it, but the group never invents anything. The preciousness lies in the lonely mind of a man.
And now the forces marshaled around the concept of group have declared a war of extermination on that preciousness, the mind of man. By disparagement, by starvation, by repressions, forced direction, and the stunning hammer blows of conditioning, the free, roving mind is being pursued, roped, blunted, drugged. It is a sad suicidal course our species seems to have take.
And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected. And this I must fight against: any idea, religion, or government that limits or destroys the individual. This is what I am and what I am about. I can understand why a system built on a pattern must try to destroy the free mind, for that is one thing which can by inspection destroy such a system. Surely I can understand this, and I hate it and I will fight against it to preserve the one thing that separates us from the uncreative beasts. If the glory can be killed, we are lost.”