So you want to create something original. You’re looking for inspiration, but you’re also very conscious to avoid ripping someone off.

This is good! I want to commend you for wanting to create something original. A lot of new hand letterers don’t realize that they shouldn’t copy others’ works and post them as their own.

This doesn’t mean you can’t copy for practice, but it’s important to note that you shouldn’t ever publish derivative works.

For instance, you can copy some hand lettering you found in a Google Image search or on Pinterest, but you should not post this on your Instagram. Even if you say it’s “inspired” it’s still infringing upon the original artist.

This makes things a bit tricky. After all, how can you get better if you don’t look at great works that have been made before you? Where can you find inspiration if you always run the risk of copying?

Fear not, there is a way! Let’s talk about the good kind of copying and how you can be inspired without copying.

The Good Kind of Copying

Not all copying is bad! In fact, copying is how we learn language. We hear others speak and we imitate. It’s how we learn music too: we listen first and then we imitate. Eventually, we’re able to come up with new creations on our own (more on this in a moment).

There is nothing inherently wrong with copying to learn.

Where you run into trouble is publishing these copied works. You should never publish a copy. That is someone else’s artwork. Attributing them does not give you permission to post it.

Copy to learn, copy to practice, but do not publish derivative works. It’s very critical to understand: posting to Instagram, posting to Facebook, posting to Twitter, etc., is publishing.

Copy privately is one thing (and I’d encourage it!), but remember that whatever you publish needs to be your own original creation.

Developing Your Style

A few days ago, we talked about How to Develop Your Own Unique Hand Lettering Style. We talked about using building blocks and modifiers to create your own style.

Copying is the first step to familiarizing yourself with the creation process. As children, we copy language and parrot the words we hear in order to learn. Gradually, we gain an understanding of the building blocks and we are able to arrange and rearrange them in an order that conveys a unique message. Our own message.

So how do you do this with lettering?

Well, you could start by copying someone else’s work, but if all you ever do is copy, you’re not going to get better very quickly. Copying the works of others is the slow to improve.

What you want to do is copy the building blocks. When it comes to hand lettering, our building blocks are letters. Your references are typefaces. In the Basic Guide to Choosing Harmonious Styles for Hand Lettering post, I gave you a list of several categories of typefaces with examples to study.

The fast way to get better at hand lettering is by familiarizing yourself with the building blocks using Deliberate Practice. In the Learn Lettering Starter Class that launches on July 27th, 2015, I’m going to explain exactly how to do this. You’re going to get access to video lessons in the first module where I show you how to apply Deliberate Practice to hand lettering and what steps to take to get better on purpose.

In the mean time, let me share with you my absolute favorite trick for being inspired without copying:

Get Inspiration Without Copying

Renowned type designer, Erik Spiekermann, shares with us in the above video his secret to getting inspiration. If he wants to create something original that is inspired by something else but he doesn’t want to rip them off, here’s what he does:

He will immerse himself in examples of the work he wants to absorb and then he will sleep on it.

Here’s the key: the next day, he creates something from memory.

That way, what comes out will not be a direct copy of his source material!

This is basically the exact opposite of what a lot of common advice says. Most people tell you to make a “mood board” of inspiration and essentially stare it it.

This is terrible advice! Creating with reference material right in front of you does not lead to original creation. It leads to copying.

3 Steps to Creating Original Work

What we should be doing is gathering inspiration constantly. Throughout your day, keep your eyes open. All it takes is a conscious effort to look for inspiration.

You have to want it. You have to seek it.

  1. Diversify Your Inspiration.
    • If you’re only looking to one person or one source for inspiration, it’s going to show in your work. People might even call you out for “ripping” off a certain artist if they recognize it. You’ve got to take in more sources. Diversify your influences and what you are consuming.
  2. Immerse Yourself in Inspiration – Then Sleep On It
    • There are two stages: immersion and recreation. First, take in the inspiration. Explore. Absorb. Over time, you acquire more and more new material. It all mixes together in what I like to call a mental stew. The longer it has to simmer, the better it is. It no longer tastes like any one of its ingredients—it’s something wholly new! This is your unique style.
  3. Create From Memory
    • Don’t use a reference! You just stored up a bunch of goodness and slept on it. The magic comes from creates from memory without looking at any of it. If you look, it’s going to lead to derivative work. Let your brain do the job of mixing all the details together so what comes out is fresh and new.

There’s Nothing New Under the Sun

Let’s face it: we’re almost never the first to do something. You’ve heard the old idiom, There’s nothing new under the sun. This is true, but it’s really referring more to general categorization.

There is still plenty or room for innovation.

Don’t try so hard to be original, instead experiment with combining old things in new ways.

Diversify your sources, immerse yourself in inspiration, create from memory.