Photo above: From my profile video on 365 Days of Type.
If you work in a creative field, you have no doubt cringed at the five letter word style at some point in your practice.
Whether you’re an illustration student discovering what your work looks like, or an interior designer trying to add your signature flair into every room you touch, finding your own voice and style is a challenge for most. With the rise of the maker movement (which is a topic I poured my heart out over in a recent essay), it’s easier than ever to see what everyone has to offer, laid in front of you. It’s a saturated landscape as it is, and thanks to blogs and platforms such as Instagram, we’re surrounded by image after image of other people’s work. Don’t get me wrong, I think being aware of the work of others and surrounded by inspiration is awesome, but inspiration-intoxication is real and it can be debilitating, leaving you more confused than ever as to what mark you should make and what it should look like.
As someone with a few signature styles myself — I employ a realistic, more painterly style sometimes, and at others, I prefer a vectorized, whimsical approach. Just take a look at my portfolio and you’ll see what I mean… — I’ve been down that hair-pullingly frustrating road of discovering my style which involved a lot of trial and (mostly) error. Today, I’m sharing some of the best tips I’ve learned over the years for how to establish your own unique voice and style.
Save and look at as many diverse images as possible: screenshot anything and everything that piques your interest. The more varied and different each image, the better. You should have 10+ heroes whose work you love, not just one or two. Why? Because the last thing you want to be is a copy-cat. If you love James Jean and try to make work like his, the most success you’ll muster is being the second-best James Jean. It’s a tiring road that only leads to being ignored — or worse. However, if you derive inspiration from, say, five people, some illustrators, some designers, some film directors, the less likely the work you make will look like aped.
The best way I know how to illustrate this point is by using my tried and true analogy of a meat grinder: You might be working with pork, beef, chicken and turkey — and throw in some garlic and herbs while you’re at it –, but after you combine them all, it’s harder to pin-point exactly what’s what when it comes out. The more diverse and ample your inspiration — in combination with your own influences and personal touches — the more likely that the resulting work will be unique and signature.
Recall Your Roots
Ask yourself: why did you get into this line of work in the first place? Who did you look up to as a child? What was that movie you watched that you re-enacted every day at recess? Where did you come from? What makes you tick? What made you fall in love with that hue of pink that you always find yourself using (question directed to myself) What makes you you? It sounds cliche, but if you try to run from where you came from and what you were first inspired by, you’ll quickly become burnt out. You can try, but you’ll only run yourself into the ground. Rather, give your younger self some credit and revisit all of those things, people and places that made you fall in love with what it is you do and breathe some life into them. You might be surprised at how easy it will become to do your job. It’s a heck of a lot harder to be someone you’re not.
It’s great to find inspiration within your industry and learn from peers and colleagues, but one of the best ways I know how to keep my work original and fresh is to go looking in unexpected places: Read books; search archives; watch movies; listen to music; read the news; browse pop-culture guilty-pleasure sites; attend fashion shows; talk to someone who works in an entirely different field than you do; go for a walk. What are people in other industries doing that interest you? There’s nothing new under the sun, and standing out in such a saturated landscape is a big challenge, but those who re-invent the wheel, and reclaim have a heck of a lot better chance of coming up with something original. Gaining perspective is never a bad idea.
Keep exploring. Even if you nail a certain style or approach, divert from it, if only for a while. No one wants to be known as a one-trick pony, and the only way to create hit single after hit single is to question your process and toy with your comfort zone. I can’t guarantee that you’ll like the result every time (no one says you have to show anyone), but I can guarantee that you’ll learn something. Sometimes, learning what you don’t like and what you aren’t good at is one of the most valuable lessons one can learn. They say curiosity killed the cat, but it’s also killed many creative blocks.