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The Pinterest Effect

© Krzysztof Kowalik

Like a big fat cat sleeping next to the radiator all day, I’ve become a lazy designer. Comfortably staring at references on my computer screen, I hope to get inspired by exercising my last creative muscle – the index finger on my mouse. The problem isn’t Pinterest, it’s how I’m using it.

Inspiration is not a bolt from the blue. It’s not a benevolent spirit that taps us on the shoulder to tell us it’s (finally) arrived. Inspiration is labor. It’s what happens when we immerse ourselves in the things we find most true, surprising, or relevant to a project. Creative people have always worked in such environments. Look at the Eames’s studio in Venice, the Yves Saint Laurent studio in Paris, or Tolstoy’s country house in Russia, which must have groaned under the weight of his 22,000 books. We need to be generous, to cover the walls in photographs, sketches, quotes, anything that could ignite a spark. We need to crit and discuss this material with our teammates. And when we inevitably run out of wall space, there’s Pinterest, the social network that allows us to create countless mood boards from billions of images around the web.

Thanks to Pinterest, we all have inspiration from across the globe at our literal fingertips. The possibilities are endless – or so you’d think. Ironically, this great democratization of information means we are destined to use the same references. It’s the reason why more and more brands are blending in rather than standing out. It’s why there are brands, websites, posters, logos, and cafés across cities and continents, from Cairo to Cleveland, that look exactly the same.

Inspiration on demand

Imagine a designer in London working on packaging for the newest sneaker brand on the block. What will she type into Pinterest? “Sneaker packaging design” seems like a pretty solid starting point. She’ll probably stumble upon some cool ideas and may even be inspired. The only problem is that as she scrolls through images of wacky box dimensions from her office in foggy London town, there’s a designer in Bolivia who has just carried out an identical Pinterest search. Chances are the newest sneaker brands from the UK and South America are going to have a helluva lot in common.

Pinterest makes it incredibly tough for designers to be creative in their search for inspiration. The site prioritizes features such as the visual search tool that transports pinners to content similar to that which they’ve already interacted with. This makes it inherently difficult to make new discoveries. But at the same time, we can’t just blame our tools. The way we use the site is like exploring a tunnel – with blinkers on. We’re searching keywords related directly to the task at hand rather than thinking outside the (shoe) box.

No context. No soul.

This is a new phenomenon. Before Pinterest and the advent of the internet search, designers would study the context of a project in great depth. If they were designing a restaurant, they would spend time at the location, getting to know the area, taking to the streets, and recording their impressions with a notebook and camera. They would interview the client and together explore the history, personality, and eccentricities of the brand. They would scour the shelves of their local library as part of their quest for inspiration. The end result would very likely be something one-of-a-kind.

With Pinterest comes the decontextualization of design. The site itself has been designed to strip images of their context. And rather than using it as a tool to supplement “on-the-ground” research, today’s designers are treating it as the be-all and end-all of their creative endeavor. Drawing inspiration from the exact same online sources results not only in a mind-numbing monotony but in a loss of meaning. A sneaker brand that looks like any other sneaker brand clearly doesn’t have a mind of its own. When we refuse to get to know a project inside out, we are silencing its personality and denying it the chance to tell its unique story. By paying attention to context, we can make a brand the best version of itself. Relying on Pinterest most often leads to a diluted version of everything else.

Side effects

Like any powerful drug, Pinterest, however useful, may cause multiple side effects. And as a branding agency, we’ve noticed a few. First of all, some clients are coming to us with beautifully curated Pinterest boards and telling us that they want their brand to look exactly like the images they’ve collected. This is bizarre. Branding, at its very core, is about differentiation. Not replication. Why would anyone want to blend in when they could stand out?

A truly heartbreaking consequence is that Pinterest allows designers to instantly check up on the work of their fellow designers. Don’t get me wrong: designers getting inspiration from other designers is natural (we all need our heroes), but it can’t be the only source. In the past, others’ work wasn’t so readily available. For starters, you would have to go to a library to search for it, and even then you wouldn’t always find exactly what you were looking for. But now it’s so easy for designers to copy one another with Pinterest as the great enabler.

Finally, excessive Pinterest use leads to a dulling of the senses – apart from sight. There is nothing so sterile and antithetical to creativity as sitting at a desk all day and using a screen as our one and only window on the world. By shutting out the outside world, we miss the smells, the sounds, the conversations, and the magical everyday moments that will never make it to our screens. Pinterest brings out our lazy side. Why take a walk around the block, it seems to say, when we can search the four corners of the earth from our swivel chairs?

Let’s get physical

Our task has never been to “produce design” in an abstract bubble. Rather it’s to come up with a creative answer to the concrete questions we are asked. We have to move away from the screen and re-contextualize. We should combine what Pinterest offers us with the books we discover, photographs we take, notes we make, and, yes, things we personally like (whether that be Renaissance sculpture, quantum physics, or interpretive dance). And we can always go back to wandering the streets where our project was born. If nothing else, we’ll get a much-needed leg stretch.

The best ideas are born in chaos, generosity, and contradiction. Pinterest drives us in the opposite direction: we create alone, in an illusion of togetherness. We are inspired when we allow space for crit, debate, and confrontation. Pinterest will never question our choices. But our teammates will.

What does the future look like? Not very bright if we don’t take action against Pinterest’s perpetuation of sameness and complacency. Designers will become photocopiers and branding agencies simply won’t make sense in a landscape that places no value on differentiation.

Inspiration has no expiration date. But it’s on us to prove it.