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The Fundamentals of Compelling Design Part 4: When Designing, Shamelessly Steal!

December 12, 2014
Steve Jobs, widely regarded as a modern visionary, had a favorite quote attributed to Pablo Picasso: “Good artists copy, great artists steal.” 

I’m going to finish up my four-part series on compelling design by espousing the importance of a robust and eclectic “swipe file.” While this seems strange, it is a standard among artists, designers and creative people in general. What matters is what you do with it. 

When I designed newspapers and magazines for 12 hours a day (believe me, that well runs dry quick), one of my favorite sources of inspiration was O, The Oprah Magazine. It is, in my opinion, the best designed general consumer publication in America. 

For instance, look at the wealth of ideas on every page: contrasting fonts and colors; balanced design; cut outs, colored text, transparency blocks around sidebars. Based off these two pages – one of just hundreds in the magazine that’s filled with innovative, compelling design – you can almost design an entire document by simply tweaking the basic ideas. 

Now, I wouldn’t recommend swiping wholesale from one magazine – that’s plagiarism. However, if you take from a bunch of different sources, well … that’s influence and smart design.

For example, let’s take a look back at our Memorial Day poster. Now, take a look at a historic Presidential invitation. See anything familiar? How about thispromotional material for the National Memorial Day Concert Series? How about this Waffle House Veterans Day Poster (by the way – guess where I take my daughter every Saturday after swim lessons for waffles and bacon)? 

Here’s the thing: I wanted Milton’s Memorial Day Ceremony, which is relatively young, to appear important and historic – but inviting. So I looked for iconography used in existing American institutions (and anybody who says the Waffle House isn’t an American institution obviously isn’t from Georgia). 

Let’s look at another example. Milton has been named Best Quality of Life in Georgia by the Business Journals’ On Numbers Survey. A big part of that honor was our unique exurban/agrarian lifestyle. If you’ll remember, my designs for the city seek to contrast that historic past with high-class modern living.

For instance, scope out our Annual Report. Now take a look at a Whole Foods advertisement. Here is a scrapbooking example from Pinterest. Add in equal parts Garden & Gun, a popular Southern lifestyle magazine. 

See what I mean? No one out there is going to have a brand exactly like the City of Milton. But if you understand the concerns and hopes of your community, you can begin to identify potential branding influences and synthesize them into something novel. 

Look at what your residents wear, what they eat, what they read. Look at their homes, their lawns, their cars. Look at their Facebook pages and Twitter accounts. We’re Americans, so we express ourselves by what we buy, what we present to the world as our lives online and in person. This is the basis of advertising, and it’s the basis of brand.

And it’s all out there waiting for you to take a pinch of this, or a bit of that, and build those components into a final product that’s uniquely yours. Experiment, combine -- see what happens. The results will surprise you.
Jason Wright is Communications Manager for the Georgia Tech Research Library. Up until November 2015, he was the Director of Innovation and Engagement for the City of Milton where he oversaw all aspects of the city's branding and communications efforts, including transparency, automation, design, photography, printing, web services and social media and public outreach.

Prior to Milton, Wright spent seven years working in the magazine and newspaper business. Most recently he was editor of both the Milton Herald and Alpharetta–Roswell Revue and News, where he wrote, edited, photographed for and oversaw design of the weekly papers. Prior to that, he worked as a writer, editor, designer and photographer for local, regional and national publication.