How To Avoid Imitation When Being Inspired

A couple of weeks ago via Scrivs, I came across this post by Jessica Hische on inspiration vs imitation. Why I wasn’t already subscribed to Jessica’s blog is another story, but the subject of the post struck me because I’ve been dealing with the exact issue.

The post comes at a time when I’m designing a site I feel might be imitating it’s inspirational sources a little more than it should.

Repeating controls on a mixing board

My Story

I’m working on a site redesign and one of the major problems I’m trying to solve is a structural one that provides flexibility for future content.

I came up with a graphical solution I thought would work, and while refining it a bit, began seeking out sites with similar flexible structures to see how they technically achieved their solution.

As I was seeking this technical inspiration I was still tweaking the graphic solution and eventually realized that without intention my design might have started to imitate a little more than having been inspired.

I don’t think anyone would look at my design and see it as an imitation. As it stands now it’s not an imitation at all. It’s more a case of I know where the site is heading.

What I’m setting up allows the possibility for imitation. It’s only a possibility and may never been seen by anyone else as copy or imitation, though I can see it and it makes me think I need to do one of the following.

  • Rethink the existing design and make changes to further separate it from what inspired it.
  • Rethink the design problem and find another solution.
  • Rethink whether the problem is worth solving or if the idea leading to it is better dropped

There’s no pressing deadline on this project so I’m still deciding which of the above is the best approach. I’m playing around a little with all three options while I make up my mind.

Erik Spiekermann – Putting Back the Face into Typeface from Gestalten on Vimeo.

How Inspiration Becomes Imitation

While there are certainly some designers who wholeheartedly rip off others, I think more often designers are genuinely trying to draw inspiration from another site and unintentionally take a little too much from it.

At the same time some design solutions end up being so simple and obvious that they’re used to the point where they come close to becoming a standard. For example would anyone accuse you of copying from another design if your design is divided into header, footer, main content, and sidebar?

In the video above Erik Spierkemann talks about designing a typeface that’s been inspired by another. After looking at the inspiration, drawing it, sketching over it, and studying it for a time he moves on to do something else and comes back later to draw it from memory.

It will inevitably be different, because memory only works so well. The typeface he ends up drawing will naturally be influenced by that other, but it won’t be a copy.

The looking, thinking, and studying all find their way into his typeface. At the same time since he’s not actively looking at it while designing his, he inevitably ends up with something different that’s a combination of the one typeface and all the others that have inspired him over the years.

Erik, of course, has been designing long enough to have developed his own style and to have culled many different inspirations. A less experienced designer may not have done either and so a single new source of inspiration may dominant their new design too much.

One other potential issue is clients. Not that clients force you to imitate of course, but I’m sure you’ve had clients approach you asking for your site to look like another they see. It’s a natural request. They want their site to look like site x and in order to satisfy their request you veer a little too much toward imitation.

I’ll get back to this point in a bit.

Poster to express we're brilliant in diversity

How To Avoid Imitation

Jessica’s post offered some thoughts on how to avoid imitating the work of another designer.

I think the first might be the most important here. The more diverse your inspirations, not just on one project, but over the entire lifespan of your career, the less any one source of inspiration dominates what you create.

Both of her next two points are similar. We can look to history in order to find more diverse sources to draw from.

The more sources we draw from the more we’re training out eyes. With more inspirational fodder we have more examples of what works and what doesn’t.

In the spirit of diversifying, we should look beyond websites to draw inspiration. We can look to:

  • print design
  • package design
  • art
  • architecture
  • nature
  • anything you see around you

We can also seek diversity within web design alone. If you’re designing a site for a local real estate agent draw inspiration from a photographer’s website or better yet a photograph.

The further away from the specifics of your project you grab inspiration, the better.

I typically stay away from pulling inspiration from websites when designing because I don’t want to unintentionally take too much. Still it’s hard not to be inspired by sites I like and I know some of what inspires me inevitably finds its way into my work. See my story above for a recent example.

Another point Jessica made is that not everything you design needs to end up online. We all need to practice to improve our craft and one way we learn to do something new is to copy others. It’s a tradition passed down through all the arts. That doesn’t mean every time we copy another to learn it should end up live on a site.

Remember Picasso’s quote “good artists borrow, great artists steal

Imitate to learn, but don’t publicly share that imitated work. That’s borrowing. Instead imitate so deeply that the techniques become your own. They become a part of you mixing with everything else.

Above I mentioned clients wanting their site to look like another. If you dig a little and ask why a client likes a particular site you’ll find it’s often just one aspect of they design they want. It might be the layout or the color scheme or the feelings evoked in a single image.

Once you gain that understanding you can draw inspiration from just that aspect while going in a different direction with the rest. Even if you find you took a little too much of that one aspect you usually haven’t taken too much from the total design.

Abstract illustration of diversity

Summary

It can be hard not to imitate at times even when we have no intention of it. It doesn’t take a lot for an inspiration to inspire us a little too much and we find ourselves creating at best a derivative work and at worst a copy of the original.

The best way to avoid copying is to diversify your sources of inspiration as much as possible in order to not have any one source make up too much of the inspiration.

In conjunction with a variety of sources you want to practice your craft as often as possible, with the knowledge that much of your practice is for you and you alone.

If you do find your work is a little too close to the work of another you have to be honest with yourself and work to make it less so. It’s ok to be inspired, but not to take too much of the work of another.

Download a free sample from my book, Design Fundamentals.

8 comments

  1. Just keep it simple and also don’t get stuck in a box with loads of limitations i did that i while back with my own blog where it could not branch out no more because it would not be on subject.

  2. i really like and practice the “spiekermann” method- no matter if its design or sofware delevopment.
    1. analyse the problem (what is existing, what is missing, not working etc.) – no external input at this point!
    2. get a rough idea of what may be a solution or a general goal of/for improvement. at this point external input is more of the type design philosophy, UX best practices, business strategy and how can it be reflected in /adopted to improve the frontend.
    3. go hunting!! (sketches, bookmarks, code-snippets, whatever … :-) , play and tinker with what you found. – highest external input!
    4. allow to drain and be soaked into the depth of your brain!
    this step is crucial!! no further input, no active work on the project. go have some coffe with friends, maybe a drink or two. depending on the size of the project this may take a lazy afternoon, a extended weekend, a week doing a small side project.
    5. aaand action!!. i usually wait for the moment or day to get in the right mood for this. absolutely no further external input at this point. shortly look over what you have got so far and lock it away! lock yourself in, turn of the phone, facebook …. and all other distractions ;-)
    code/desing from a “blank page”, put in all ideas and concepts only from your mind and what was left over after your brain boiled down all the input it got before.
    put in everything you think might be helpful for the project and strip it down further and further until it gets what you consider yourself should be the essence of your approach.
    6. get back to real life and real world. show what you have so far, (maybe even the customer, if its the right one) let it review by others, refine further.
    7. iterate and go back to step 1.even if it is only a small protion of the entire project, take only this part, let the rest of the project as it is and start at point 1 with the part problem. if it’s done, integrate it at point 7 to the entire project, but not before!
    if you think you need to redesign your entire work so far: leave it behind! don’t take it as extra load to your next round. your brain has already boiled it down to what went good and what went wrong.

    in any case: the outcome of this process is always unique to the specific problem. if your “distilling” process was very effective, the outcome may even be a very generic one that allows later addition of fancy candy-stuff whitout breaking it.
    and if it nevertheless is looking/feeling like another solution you saw before: it may be the best solution for this problem?

    • Thanks for sharing siggi. I can recognize some of those steps in my own process. One thing I really liked with your process is how external stimuli is and isn’t part of different steps in the process.

      Isolating the stimuli to certains steps should help keep it from bleeding too much into your work.

  3. I had always feared a situation like this, and this limited my creativity a lot. I always wanted to create something that was essentially brand new, at least in my eyes, and you can imagine how hard it is. I got over it when I saw a webdesign that I really liked and, more, I was curious to see how it was done. When I saw the source, it initially didn’t seem to make sense, so I tried to rebuild it, just to figure it all out. As I was rebuilding it, I decided to make a few changes, especially on the few parts that hadn’t impress me initially. After it was done, I looked at it, and noticed that, because of the small alterations I’d done, it had some sort of “my signature” in it. Don’t get me wrong; anyone who compared both designs would notice at first glance that one was a copy of the other. But it got me thinking. Now I wanted to see how I could change so that it wouldn’t look like a copy. (Remember: I was doing it just for the sake of it; it wasn’t a commercial project.) I did, and it was like I had found the answer to how to be inspired: I used to rationalize “inspiration” a lot. As soon as I got over all that rationalization and all the thinking that someone “might” think my design was just a copy, I managed to see inspiration for what it is, or at least for what it really looks to me.

    • Great story Alexandre. I think that’s exactly how it should work. I used to do similar things where I would try to recreate someone else’s design (also for myself and not any commercial project) because I liked it. Even the first time through you can’t help but make a few changes that starts incorporating your own style.

      Sometimes when working for a client I will take inspiration from another site. More likely the client pointed me to a site they liked with instructions to make it like that one.

      When that happens I spend some time asking my client questions about what they specifically liked in another site. Sometimes it has nothing to do with the design. Sometimes it’s just a color or the use of 2 columns. Those things are much easier to “copy” without really copying the site.

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