What’s the Difference? Inspiration vs. Copying

What’s the Difference? Inspiration vs. Copying

I have been privileged to teach design, painting, and illustration to college students for several years. The beauty of teaching is that I can pass on my knowledge and experience, but more importantly, I also learn a lot about art and design from my students.

If you have taken a college-level visual arts class or just breathed air, you have probably heard the comment, “think outside of the box.” If it’s a negative comment directed at your work, it can feel vague. What does that mean? How do you achieve it?

I have already discussed the topic of inspiration in-depth, which can be found in the blog section of this website so that I will touch on the subject.

We all need to be inspired.  Inspiration comes in many forms. I find a lot of inspiration from works of art, so a trip to the art museum usually gets my imagination going.

And yet, it is essential to understand the differences between being inspired and copying.

The dictionary defines copy as “an imitation, reproduction, or transcript of an original,” while alluding is “the making of a casual or indirect reference to something.”

Let’s look at cross-section historical designs and how current designers take inspiration from them.

Dresses from the 1960 thru 2021

Fashion designers often take inspiration from historical fashion. The 1960s fashion trends are still being felt today. The outfit on the left is from the 1960s. Note the bold pattern, the simple shape of the dress, and the Go-Go boots! The designs for 2010 allude to the 60s with the simplicity of form and bold print, yet there are differences. More skin is showing in the length of the skirts and the cropped top. Gone are the Go-Go boots, replaced with pointed, high-heels. The styling of accessories, make-up, and hair is not alluding to the ’60s but to the trends in 2010.

The piece from 2021 alludes to the Go-Go boots, but the length is no longer at the calf but thigh-high, with a very short shirt. An interesting turn in this design is the reference to 1970s styling and the 1980s shoulder pad jacket.

Love them, or hate them, the large shoulder pad is a trend in the early 2020s. They have a long history in fashion and were a fashion staple in the 1980s. Joan Crawford, in the 1940s, and Grace Jones, in the 1980s, was known for donning the large shoulder pad. In the 80s, this trend made its way into men’s wear. In the early 2020s, large shoulder pads made a brief comeback.

In the ’20s, the jackets and shirts are cropped. The jacket on the left refers to the big shoulder pad and alludes to a uniform or military jacket. The fabrics used throughout the design have a feminine feel with a pattern on the shorts that is gentler in form compared to the patterns popular in the 1980s.

The design on the far right is a wedding dress that breaks tradition! Not only does it include large shoulder pads, but it is also short, cropped, and fitted.


Sometimes a designer needs to make an apparent reference to a historical design. The Ford Thunderbird (T-bird) of 1955 was a stylish car that stopped manufacturing in 2005.

The first edition T-bird, produced from 1955-1957, was a two-passenger convertible with a removable hardtop. Its signature look is its sleek form, modest fins, opera windows, and hood scoop.

Years later, Ford revitalized the model in its 2002 design. They intensionally included references to the 1955 design, with modern updates.  It continued to be a two-passenger convertible with a removable hardtop, hood scoop, and opera window. Gone are the fins. The front light fixtures are streamlined into the car. In general, the form of the vehicle is softer, lacking hard edges.

 Interior Design

Mid-century is currently a popular style in Interior Design. The top left photo is of a classic 1950s interior. The wood beams on the ceiling and exposed brick are trademarks of this era. The form of the furniture is hard edges, rectangular in shape, with wood finishes.

The color palette is a good representation of this period. The green on the walls and sofa is a shade of green (a shade is a color with black mixed into it). The color is dark and is a cool-based hue of green. The red chairs are pure red, with an orange base. The patterns on furniture and pillows are bold, large prints.

The top right photo is from 2010, showing a revised mid-century vibe. The furniture retains a similar look to its mid-century with hard edges, rectangular in shape, with mainly wood finishes.

The color palette is the actual break from its predecessor. True, there is still green and red. The green is a tint of green (a tint is a color with white mixed into a color). This is a warm-based green, unlike the cool green of the 1950s. This hue is lighter, creating a more inviting living space. The red is not pure but muted. It gets its pop from the white that surrounds the color. More neutrals are found in the design, as in the rug and flooring.

When you look at the living space in the 2021 design (bottom photo), the furniture still has mid-century hard edges, rectangular in shape forms, but mixes wood finishes with solid hues. Gone are the bold patterned fabric once used on furniture and pillows. Instead, the designer uses a bold, geometric design on the rug and the artwork decorating the walls.

The palette is mainly a combination of neutrals and blue-green. The blue-green is a tint. On the walls, it is light and bright. In the carpeting, the blue-green is purer but still lightened with white. This color palette has moved far from the traditional palettes used in the 1950s.

Graphic Design

The last area of design that I will discuss is visual commercial art. Oddly, this has been the most challenging category for me to research. Maybe it’s because I am in the visual arts, maybe because there are so many artistic styles to select from in any given year. I have chosen a sample from the 1950s and the 1960s.

The 1950s stamps, especially the stamp on the top-right, have a traditional 50s color palette. As we saw in the examples of interior design, shades of green were prevalent during this era. The blue is a tone (a tone is a color with gray mixed into it). Tones were a popular color choice. Pure, bright colors were commonly found in the 50s palette, as seen in pure magenta on the leaves. The bright colors create rhythm across the design.

Another trend is the cartoon style, and in this case, using simplified, geometric forms.

The use of simplified forms has been a developing trend in recent years. In the example from 2021, the shapes are flat but more complete in detail. Whereas the 50s stamp relies on pure colors to create movement, the 2021 design uses the lyrical shape of the forms for its movement.

There are pure colors, but tints are prevalent (tints have white added to the hue). Using a light value throughout the design, the designer assures a welcoming feeling to the piece.

Commercial Arts

The last era I will discuss is the 1960s. Peter Max, famous in the 60s, is known for his psychedelic and pop art styles. His style has been described as using counterculture imagery. It had a significant impact on design in the 60s.

Factor traditionally used bright, pure colors with tints. The images are flat, cartoonish forms. His forms are outlined in black. Areas in the designs utilize a lot of detail, countered with large, open spaces. His work is playful.

There has been a resurgence in the psychedelic art style in the 2020s. The current style is more complex, as compared to Factors. The compositions have more objects, significantly reducing areas of open space.   Patterns are included on the shape and backgrounds, adding to the complexity of the overall pieces. The color palette retains the pure colors with tints, but black added, not just outlining but used to unify the design, adds more pop to the colors. Black also tunes down the playfulness as seen in Factors’ brightly colored work.

To summarize, inspiration is lovely; we all need it. The difference between being inspired and copying a style is in the color palettes, altering forms, and suggesting a shape but making it more or even less complex. It’s in the styles and the details.

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