The visual language we have at our disposal as designers is extraordinarily rich, and as viewers and consumers of design we have become incredibly visually literate. At the simplest level we can express and understand ideas through the use of colour and symbols (in the case of road signs and computer icons, for example) but we can also reference more complex imagery - other artwork, record covers, posters and films. There's a huge wealth of visual material that we can draw upon and that our target audience will understand. Unfortunately, however, all too often designers are guilty of reverting to clichs and using the same type of imagery again and again.
How many times have you seen butterflies in illustrations recently? Or recreations of Soviet propaganda posters? How many times have you seen people try to shoehorn street art into their work? While these styles and motifs may have been effective tools in the right context, their over-use means that they've lost their impact and suggest a lack of imagination.
"Most design clichs originate from something quite original and exciting," says Jason Arber, designer and co-founder of Pixelsurgeon. "Early adopters pick up on this, and twist and mutate it into a design or a treatment that's also new. But after a few revisions, it reaches designers who use trends as a visual crutch, and it quickly becomes tired, overused and even divorced from its original context."
This kind of imitation is common to almost every artistic endeavour. A leading light or an innovator will develop a style that's successful and is quickly followed by imitators. From bands ripping off the chord structures of the Beatles to high-street clothes apeing the styling of high fashion, originality can often be in short supply in the creative industries. We frequently look to others for inspiration, but in doing so we forget about our own creative process.
Style over substance
The elements of design and illustration that become clichd can be broken down into two categories: complete styles and individual motifs or symbols.
Styles are complete sets of design practice that dictate everything from colours used in a palette to how figures and characters are drawn. A style is normally flexible enough to allow original work that has similar characteristics, but mimicking key works in that style without any additional creativity leads to clich.
Pop art is a great example of a style that has become mired by clich. Pop art describes an art movement influenced by popular culture and the use of commercial processes such as screen-printing. While the style is broad enough to enable new work to be created, designers time and time again resort to imitating a number of works, such as Warhol's silk-screen images of Marilyn Monroe. So rather than artists using the techniques prescribed by the style to create new work, they opt instead to imitate an existing work.
As well as complete styles being imitated, small elements can become clichd. Motifs and symbols are often repeated ad nauseam in contemporary illustration and design. Butterflies, for example, seem to have become the vector illustration equivalent of a baker putting a cherry on top of an iced cake. Type also falls into this category. While typography itself is a rich language, fonts are often chosen by designers wishing to imitate a style rather than with proper consideration for their use.
"A few years ago Designers Republic took Helvetica and reduced the kerning," says Chris Speed, senior lecturer in Interactive Multimedia at the University of Plymouth. "Students, if in doubt, do that because it still looks cool and says 'I kind of know what I'm doing; I've changed the kerning', but they don't ever critique why they've done it."
Speed describes these repeating patterns as the result of 'mannerisms' that designers act out, going through the motions of 'doing the job of a designer'. Sometimes symbols and motifs are used as metaphors to communicate an idea, but just as with clich phrases in literature, this widely used visual language itself can be lazy.
Vancouver-based teacher and typographic designer Marian Bantjes provides the example of the proliferation of the image of lightbulb in design. "A lightbulb which is used to indicate a button you push to turn on a light is not a clich but it is a dreadful clich when used to indicate 'idea'."
Through repeated use, the depiction of a lightbulb to represent an idea has entered the collective consciousness. While symbols like this provide designers with a form of shorthand to express ideas, they don't allow for a designer to advance the language. Just as literature is full of hackneyed clichs, visual design is filled with motifs that are used in the same way. As Speed describes it, they "don't expand the boundaries of the discipline, they just keep the status quo alive".
Blame the tools
One of the causes for an abundance of samey looking imagery in design and illustration may be the tools we're using. We may love the flexibility that software gives us, but it can make us lazy. Filters, presets, brushes and textures built into Illustrator and Photoshop might seem like a quick way to enhance your work but don't forget that they are available to everyone owning the software, so rely too heavily on one effect and you'll quickly be exposed as a charlatan.
Derek Lea, digital artist and Computer Arts contributor, believes that software bolsters the skills of the less talented and often leads to plagiarism. "Repetition occurs in digital art more frequently than with traditional illustration," he says. "I think the main reason is that it's much easier to master a digital tool and make it look good than to use a paintbrush or a pencil. So when someone creates something that is quite simple, like animal silhouettes filled with solid colour and gradients that we see everywhere, it's no real challenge to replicate."
Not every imitation is a clich though - one of the most important parts of design is using careful reference. Referencing an existing style that you know, and that your audience will also know, can be an effective tool for communication. If you imitate a piece of work carefully, recreating the details accurately, you can inherit a lot of complex meaning from the original artwork.
If you wanted to create a recruitment poster, you might choose to parody the classic Lord Kitchener poster that was used to recruit soldiers in World War I. If you recreate the artwork with a degree of accuracy, your design will be effective in two ways: those who understand the reference will know the associations between the image and 'a call to arms'. For those who don't get the reference, they will inherit the effectiveness of the original but without all that added meaning.
The problem that gives rise to clich is that examples such as the Kitchener poster are cited all too often, and while your audience might still understand the reference they won't be as drawn to it as they would to something new.
So why do we keeping seeing so much samey work? Surely designers are by their nature creative thinkers and should be innovating and pushing the boundaries of their media?
Unfortunately, in commercial design, many designers aren't always masters of their destiny. Commissioned work may have a tight brief that comes from the client which dictates the styling, and the clients themselves may have a clear vision of what they want.
Lawrence Zeegen, illustration agent and university lecturer at the University of Brighton, believes that the commercial sector is always going to hunt for the lowest common denominator. "It's not always concerned with ideas and creative thinking, sadly," he says. "Too many projects are about keeping a client happy, rather than creating work that has a chance to say something."
In some circumstances a conservative approach to creativity is called for. Corporate logo designs, for example, often ape one another because the overriding desire is for the company to seem legitimate rather than to stand out from the crowd. So for a commercial illustrator, using a few clichs can have its advantages. Potential clients can recognise that your work is similar to X's work and X's work was very effective in advertising pizzas for example. So should we all get clued up on the latest trends to become successful?
Well, you could, but Luke Wilson, illustrator and agent at Synergy Art, warns that focusing on a current trend - vector illustration for example - could leave you high and dry when fashions change. All those hours spent drawing butterflies and rainbows won't make you a better designer in the long run.
When seeking new talent for Synergy, Wilson says that he looks out for a combination of technical skills and a creative mind. "Lots of illustrators we represent have great traditional skills, whether it be in terms of drawing or draughtsmanship," he says. "Not only drawing but creative thinking rather than just doing wallpaper over and over again."
Lawrence Zeegen believes it's a matter of choice as to whether you want to imitate or innovate. "Design is easy if you think it's about fitting into the current zeitgeist - find a style, study it, copy it!" he says mockingly. "However, if you want to create something truly innovative and new, well, that's harder. You'll need to study at least an undergraduate design degree and, better still, a postgraduate degree too."
So it seems that education is the key to a better standard of design. Designers who imitate one another will be successful in the short-term, but real progress can only come from analysis of the fundamentals of design - problem solving and creative thinking. Software has made it too easy for us duplicate each other's work, so to really stand out these days what's needed is truly clever design and some ethics.
Zeegen believes that the secret is to know what kind of designer you want to be and stick to a plan. "Don't take on projects that aren't going to offer real creative problem solving," he advises. "Don't take on projects that ethically don't fit within your own remit. Don't do it for the money - do it for the love of design."