What’s in a Style?

I’ve talked about the good and bad types of copying before. Though there are many overlapping points, this is a tangential topic to that of my previous article. I started writing much of this in a personal response to a question posed by a good friend. Part way through, I recognized that I was writing in a general enough manner that it might be beneficial for others as well if I shared it.

I’ve said it before, there’s nothing new under the sun, but that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing left for a newcomer to do but copy. I cannot stress the importance of diversification of inspiration enough. Too many new designers simply look to the forerunners in the industry and imitate one designer’s style.

When browsing, you’ll often notice that the style of a new designer’s work looks remarkably like that of a well-known designer. This is a problem. It’s clear that they have only a single source of inspiration, and they’re simply painting their message with another designer’s brush—one that was hand-crafted over the course of years, and honed through practice and personal innovation.

It’s not unlike what often happens in the tech industry. One company spends years in the lab trying new things, pushing the envelope, working hard to break into uncharted territory. The lazy company merely lifts the fruits of the first company’s labor by imitating the results. They skip all of the hard work, effort, and research that brought the first company to these conclusions. The first company doesn’t “own” any one particular aspect, but they are the author of the style that they’ve developed over many years of innovating. It is the combination of all the comprising elements that results in the uniqueness that is their resulting line of products.

Similarly with design, no one person owns any single element. Does Starbucks own a green circle? No. Do they own any reference to coffee in branding? No. Do they even own any execution of a white illustration on a green circle? No, they don’t. But let’s not beat around the bush here: If you’re going to develop a coffee brand, stop acting like the only branding option you have is to create a white Siren on a green circle to slap on your coffee cups.

When it comes to lettering specifically, we’re so far from having exhausted all possible expressions of style. There’s more than enough room to be unique in your pursuits. To complain that there isn’t anything left that hasn’t already been done is the whine of a lazy designer.

Stop drivelling on about how “he shouldn’t be upset that my design looks like his—it’s not like he’s the only ones who can use grunge,” or “who said she pioneered clean and vectored illustrative scripts?” Guess what? The leading designers don’t talk like that. They’re too busy innovating. You can spend your effort defending why your derivative works are “technically not stealing”, or you can channel that energy into being more creative in your pursuits.

Let’s say that you’re right. Let’s say that your derivative works are “technically” a hair short of outright theft. At best, you’ll only ever be one step behind. That attitude can only ever make you dependant upon, and deferential to, those who apply themselves toward groundbreaking work.

Don’t concern yourself with “having a style”. Style is a word other people use in reference to someone’s work. It comes organically, with time and dedicated creation. As the designer continues to push the boundaries, eventually they arrive at a place that is fresh and uncharted. When their blood, sweat, and tears have carried them to a place that only dedicated innovation can reach, they can continue creating in good conscience. This is a style. Others begin to recognize the pattern of work as being within a classification that does not fit any existing group. It is then that the work is referred to as being an artist’s “style”.

Take a good look at the building blocks you have at your disposal. In this post, I’m going to talk specifically about lettering, but hopefully the notion is general enough to where you can apply the thinking to your own industry.

You first have your standard classifications of type: Serif, Sans-serif, Script, Blackletter, Slab, the list goes on depending upon how specifically you want to slice things. Within these classifications, there are a wide variety of stroke contrasts and weights. There are extended and condensed formats. There are modern-looking types and traditional types. There are innumerable subclassifications within all of these as well.

We all have the various classes of type with which to design, but then we also have the combination of different types. You could make an entire design with one single style, or you could combine two styles—maybe even three or four! We’re already starting to see a huge variety of possibilities unfold, and we’ve only just begun our overview of building blocks everyone can use. Look how creatively the Brooklyn Beta site juxtaposes Sentinel and Quatro Slab. They’ve combined the two brilliantly to create a very unique and recognizable brand.

Now that you’ve decided how you’d like to pair your styles of type, you are then free to choose your medium. Will you create with a tablet straight into Photoshop? How about the pen tool in illustrator? Is a pencil your tool of choice or are you a micron-wielding fiend? Maybe you enjoy a nostalgic trip and prefer to get your kicks using crayon. We certainly wouldn’t want to leave out the trusty paintbrush, or the traditional calligraphy pen. Are you starting to catch my drift?

What about color? Do you even use color? Possibly the limitations of simple black ink are your cup of tea. Maybe you enjoy creating in black and white, but then add color later. Do you scan your work? Photograph it? Do you add texture in Photoshop or do you develop 3D creations with hyperrealistic depth and eye-popping gradients? You might enjoy using watercolor, or a spectrum of markers to get the organic type of color that is only truly achievable in analog form. The possibilities are endless.

Let me say that again: the possibilities are endless. It is ridiculous to maintain the facade that you are limited to creating in the style of another designer. You’re better than that. I believe in you.

Your challenge this week: go create something outside your comfort zone. Use a different building block in any one of the aforementioned categories that is other than the one you currently use. Always combine sans and script? Change it up. Only use microns? Try a brush pen. Mostly using black and white? Throw in some color! Diversify, diversify, diversify.

No more excuses.

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By Sean McCabe

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