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Branding & Marketing

References Are Overrated

While the compulsion to save reference items is strong, we rarely return to them once they're filed away. Our unscientific study revealed mostly dust.

Behance did a very unscientific study of how we use our own reference items. Over the past three years, we have accumulated 4 faux-leather-bound plastic sleeve books full of magazine cut-outs, printouts, and book excerpts on creative people. The first thing we found was dust.

It seems that these invaluable references were not as valuable as they appeared. While we plan to someday flip through them, we seldom do. In the age of Google and some kick-ass blogs, we tend to turn to the mighty web for information. What is the point of keeping 600 reference items if you seldom refer to them?

When Reference Items are Used Well

However, there was one book that had no dust and was centrally located in our office. “Take-Out Menus” was a compilation of restaurants in the area. It seems that the title for this collection of reference items was specific enough to make the collection useful. If we had titled the collection “Random Mailings” and included the other coupons and marginally helpful items we receive in the mail, then we would probably refer to the collection less frequently. The lesson: tag or title each reference file with a SPECIFIC name, rather than something generic.

Reference Items for Inspiration

The only counter-point is that references often serve as cross-pollination in their randomness and tendency to surface unexpectedly. When you stumble upon an old reference item, you may be reminded of an old idea or become inspired by something you had almost forgotten. Of course, in this capacity references are also serving as a distraction. At best, the reference is serving as helpful cross-pollination for the projects you are currently working on. At worst, the reference item takes you completely off track.

More Posts by Scott Belsky

Scott Belsky is the Chief Product Officer at Adobe and is the co-founder of 99U and Behance. He has been called one of the “100 Most Creative People in Business” by Fast Company, and is the author of The Messy Middle and the bestselling book, Making Ideas Happen.

Comments (10)
  • twright

    I can totally identify with the DUST!!! So much dust on my references!

  • Guest

    So true! The dust does collect and piles grow…references are a double-edged sword!

  • cook116street

    I have so much leftover articles lying around, I need to feng shui my office! This seems to be a good way to decipher what to keep.

  • undoredo

    My problem is that I have many different media for reference. From a poster, a website, a song, some photograph… I haven’t fpund a quick and easy way to archive them and a simple way to search for them. Does anybody know any piece of software that works?

  • illovich

    Small counter argument: saving the item is the method of review and processing. <br />
    <br />
    The act of concentration on the object to extract it from it’s original place (woo, sounds weighty for cutting a page from a magazine) gets your mind to focus on it during the act – you’re not only cutting, but you’re simultaneously processing and integrating the object into your own database (which is not the right word, but it will do). <br />
    <br />
    In this scenario, it seems better to further transform the object, as more value comes from the activity – i.e. cutting out elements and recomposing them in a sketchbook, photocopying or scanning and then transforming them would be of a higher process value than simply scoring the edge of a page, scribbling notes and storing it in a binder. <br />
    <br />
    The correlating argument supports your thesis: the binders themselves are pretty useless because they save completed work that has no intrinsic value for anyone but the person who made the binder in the first place.<br />
    <br />
    Tangential point: I had a colleague who made their office wall into their binder. It looked messy, but it made sure we all looked at his references.

  • elmnt

    Reference materials are absolutely useful. Moreso I think to an illustrator than a designer. For example, an illustrator might cut out a photo of a truck in a magazine to use as a reference to draw a truck in an editorial illustration. For a designer, I think it can be useful to flip through a magazine to get ideas for certain aspects of a layout, then you make your own sketches and put together some layout ideas.<br />
    <br />
    But when that’s done, I think it’s pointless to save those magazine pages. Use them for instant sparks for ideas. No reason to catalog them.

  • Alexander

    I totally agree that references for reference sake does nothing to help you. I catalog my references in binders of small boxes (for objects) and treat them like magazines in that I will go through one of them about once a month. Just thumb through and see stuff. Also because they are in binders that are loosely organized I can also target my search if I need say illustration ideas verse interior design ideas. Also in tearing our individual magazine pages you save dones of space.

  • Indiegod

    I believe that it’s the process of collecting ideas that motivates us in referencing. It’s a collection. Something earned out of filtering ideas and information. I think that’s why we tend to compile random thoughts that can and might inspire us now or later.

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