I often encourage my students to look at the work of other designers. Not to “steal” ideas but to gather up some inspiration, and maybe some motivation. Interestingly, most think I am telling them to copy what they see. They don’t understand how to look at something, how to let it into your head, without committing it to memory for later reproduction.
I have to explain how I look at work, first as a whole. I take the whole piece in without breaking down the parts. Taking note of first impressions, emotions and overall like or dislike. Then, if warranted, I dig deeper. Looking at color, typography, use of space, etc. But the whole time I’m keeping my thoughts rather general. I might see the designer used a muted palette and a simple grid. I let that roll around in my head - muted colors and a simple grid rather than which muted colors and what grid was used. When I go back to the problem I’m working on, I might try muted colors and maybe I’ll clean up my grid. I also might try bright colors and a more complex grid.
It isn’t a matter of copying or stealing. It is a matter of allowing various elements to spark thoughts based on what you are working on. I would guess that those of us that grew up with wooden blocks and LEGO (without an instruction book) can take raw parts and form them into something much easier than those that have always had a plan to work from. Not knowing where an idea will take you, rather than building to the picture on the box, is an acquired skill set.
Is the future of design going to rely on designers that need an instruction book? Will they know how to be curious? What exposure to “maybe” will they have and be comfortable with?