The Borrowed Muse: Does Inspiration Come from Imitation? [INTERVIEW]
By Debra Kamin
Nov 17, 2015
Designers are terrified of imitation and they have reason to be wary. Take, for example, the story of Japanese designer Kenjiro Sano, who designed the logo for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games and was later accused of ripping off a Belgian theater with a nearly identical emblem. A scandal ensued, the Tokyo Olympic Committee scrapped Sano’s design entirely and his reputation was ruined.
This case brings to light one of the most enduring and ethically complicated questions of design: where does the line lie between creative influence and downright stealing?
Ohad Aviv and Eyal Zuri in their Tel Aviv office
This is a question that Eyal Zuri and Ohad Aviv deal with constantly. These designers are the innovative duo behind Muzli, a web extension for Chrome that transforms your default browser page into a curated gallery of hand-picked design inspiration.
Culling the web on an hourly basis for exceptional-looking websites, blogs and individual products, Zuri and Aviv select the boldest and most beautiful design nuggets they can find. They upload their finds to Muzli’s central server for users - creatives that spend the day in front of their computer screens - to have a fresh dose of eye candy and inspiration.
Imitation Is Part Of A Good Toolbox.
“Consuming design content is a major building block of acquiring that toolbox that makes you a better designer, regardless of how good you are,” Aviv says from the company’s headquarters in downtown Tel Aviv.
“If you are closed in a bubble, which a lot of designers are, you might be doing some good stuff but you are going to get left behind. It’s difficult to grow artistically if you don’t see enough good things around you.”
Muzli’s 45,000 users seem to agree. The company has seen phenomenal growth since launching just nine months ago, with traffic on a constant uptick and pageviews climbing to 10 million per month. Some 60 percent of the users are designers themselves, while the other 40 percent, Aviv and Zuri say, are marketers, entrepreneurs or technology executives with a shared passion for aesthetics and exciting, cutting-edge visuals.
The duo insist that every user, whether they work full-time in the design industry or not, are leaning on Muzli for one of the most crucial building blocks of an artist life: finding one’s muse.
A Balanced Breakfast Includes A Serving Of Inspiration.
The name "Muzli" is a riff on the idea of a muse, derived from Greek mythology. Muses were the goddesses inspiration for literature, science, and the arts.
The name also calls to mind the crunchy, nutritious breakfast cereal that if consumed first thing in the morning, like the Muzli, can set the stage for a productive, healthier workday. Most crucially, it’s a short, shareable, memorable domain name in an ever-crowded Internet sphere.
But it’s inspiration, which runs so dangerously close its cousin, imitation, that Aviv and Zuri are focused on.
“For myself, and for everything I know about the great artists of the world, that basic toolbox is crucial. That toolbox comes out of doing stuff that other people probably did. You can call that copying or you can call that reproducing great work, but the point is that first you have to have that skillset, and then – if you’re reasonably innovative and imaginative – you can take that and find your own language, your own handwriting, your own style.”
Aviv continued to explain that inspiration is what imitation becomes when it is put to hard work. It is the '2.0' while imitation is the Beta. "No artist should fear imitation, but by the same token, no artist should be comfortable until he pushes himself to break beyond it and push into the realm of originality."
Picasso Said ‘Great Artists Steal.’ So, Should You?
As long as designers stay clear on the distinction, inspiration is more than just fuel for the creative fire, It’s a crucial stepping-stone that must be cleared on the way to doing good work.
Picasso, who knew a thing or two about good work, had a different way of putting it: “Good artists copy. Great artists steal.”
The surrealist master, of course, was not condoning plagiarism or encouraging artists to borrow, rather to build. What Picasso meant was that to create truly excellent art, you have to first acquire the basic tools of portraiture and shape. That means copying others’ work over and over until you have nailed the basics and only then moving on to the next level.
Muzli follows the same philosophy: by inhabiting the world around you, drinking in all the influences and ideas of others’ creativity, artists can push back with an interpretation of their own.
“If you think about Picasso, for example, he painted realistic portraits commissioned by patrons for a very long time and it took a while to identify his own identity as an artist." Aviv continued, “with design, even though it’s not a proper art, it’s a functional art – the mechanisms are the same.”
It Takes A Community To Really Get Inspired.
As far as Muzli is concerned, those mechanisms look poised to keep growing. Aviv and Zuri are both designers by training, so their next step for the company is to hire more staff to manage the site’s back-end and continue to bolster their infrastructure so it can handle ever-increasing traffic.
When it comes to hiring good people, they aren’t too worried because they are based in Tel Aviv, one of the most exciting cities for start-up growth in the world. The issue will not be finding good people, it will be choosing the best people from a wealth of available candidates.
That same saturation of tech talent, they say, has helped contribute to their growth.
“In Tel Aviv, we’re surrounded by friends who do cool stuff,” Aviv says. “Israel is a very special place in that aspect. Because we are a Google Chrome extension, we had technical problems with Google and they rejected some of our stuff. But in Israel, because everyone went to the army together or went to school together, you have someone on your Facebook who is the head of developer relations at Google.”
Just like a designer's work grows when surrounded by creative, design-savvy people, start-ups flourish when they rub elbows with intelligent, boundary-pushing tech minds.
Aviv and Zuri now find themselves, with Muzli, benefiting from both sources of cross-inspiration and they admit to enjoying themselves.
If genius, like Einstein said, is only part inspiration, Aviv and Zuri believe that much of the remaining 99 percent starts by imitating. There’s no formula for good design, but being surrounded by beauty – the kind that inspires and sets a fire under people obsessed with great aesthetics – is a great place to start.
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