Weekly Editorial

What Influences Designers?

Written By Rob Kirkbride, Editor-in-chief, OI Publications • June 26, 2023

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I love music and I’m inspired by great songs and artists. I once went to a blues festival where a 14-year-old blues phenom was playing. I had heard about his talent on the guitar and was impressed by his playing. It was technically flawless.

It didn’t work for me. The boy was amazing on the guitar. His playing was crisp, clear and effortless. But he couldn’t play the blues. Why not? Because he had never had the blues. His experience allowed him to play a mean guitar, but he had never experienced falling in love and the heartbreak of losing it. He had never been two-timed or seriously screwed over. All of these life lessons — good and bad — are a key ingredient to good blues and this young artist was missing all of them.

Design is very similar to being a good blues artist. It is the culmination of the designer’s collective experience. I’ve found that good designers have a rich and varied background and they are influenced by the world around them. They read a lot (and not just business books), they enjoy art, tend to like being out in nature and they are curious about the world around them.

When I first started thinking about writing a column about design influencers, my mind immediately went to people. Who are the design influencers? As I thought more about it, I thought it would be more interesting to look at what influences designers instead of coming up with a laundry list of people who are influential designers. You already know who they are.

So what influences design? It depends on the designer. I was told by product designer Yves Behar that he came up with the back shape for the Herman Miller Sayl chair after he crossed a suspension bridge. An interior designer I know told me she came up with an office design after spending time in her garden. The floorplate was circular and she designed the offices beginning at the center of the building with the offices fanning out from the center like the petals of a flower.

It seems to me the best way to get better at design is to be engaged with life. Too often we hear about design being informed by social media like Instagram and Pinterest. It’s possible to be inspired by influencers online, but we learn a lot more about design by getting our noses out of our smart phones.

I’ve made a habit of trying to notice one beautiful thing around me each day — a very low bar to clear, to be sure. It might be the deep blue color of the sky on a clear summer day or the deep red of a cardinal that lands in a tree near me. My point is that most of us miss these small, but inspirational moments. If we simply open our eyes and see them, we will be better at what we do, whether we are designers, office furniture dealers, sales reps or journalists.

Simply put, everything influences design. What makes design special is how those life experiences are filtered through the lens of the designer. If you hand 100 designers the plans to an office and ask them to create the space, they will come up with 100 different designs. There will be some similarities, but no two designs will be exactly the same.

At the core of design is creativity. We aren’t solving math problems here. Since creativity is subjective, you may not like the shape Behar came up with for the Sayl chair. Thankfully, there are many chairs from many designers to choose from. What’s best in my eyes might not be best for you or your client.

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