As an artist you are only a link in a chain, and whatever you find or whatever you do not find, you can find comfort in it.
Note: This post includes an audio version. If you don’t see the audio above, Click here to listen.
We all draw inspiration from the works of others. At the same time we want to stay away from outright copying those works. Sometimes without intention we cross into the latter. How can we avoid copying, while still taking something from the designs that inspire us?
Earlier this month a case where inspiration crossed into copying came to my attention and perhaps yours as well. Jeremy Keith published a humorous conversation he had with the head of another design firm who’s site showed a strong resemblance to Jeremy’s Clearleft site.
When I started listening I initially thought the payoff would be that the second company was simply lifting Clearleft’s work and would be outed for doing so. However, by the time I reached the end of the audio I had a different opinion. I don’t think this was an attempt to copy, but rather a case of unintentional drawing too much inspiration from a single source.
Usually when this topic comes up, I’m reminded of the quote from one Vincent van Gogh’s letters at the top of this post and how artists are links in a chain, building on what came before and leaving behind something for others to build on after. Copying is part of the tradition for how art evolves and how design evolves as well.
There are circumstances where it’s ok and even advisable to copy the work of someone else. Generally it’s when you’re learning. Copying from the masters is an accepted part of the learning process. To better understand how something was created you copy it as close as you can and learn from the experience of doing.
The act of copying helps train your technical muscles.
- Musicians learn to play the riffs of others exactly as they hear them.
- Painters create variations of the masters and copy brush strokes or color palettes.
- Developers type out all the code they find in a book or a site they come across.
- Designers mimic the type, grids and color of those that inspire them.
While it’s ok to copy to learn, it’s not ok to copy someone’s work and pass it off as your own for commercial purposes. I think we’d all agree that’s wrong and it’s in part why copyright laws exist. However, every industry has a certain mentality where some lead and the rest copy. Design is no different and most designs are at some level a copy of another design.
There are other connections between drawing inspiration and copying as well. When starting a design it’s not uncommon to ask clients for a list of sites they like and why they like them. I’ve had clients insist on wanting to use colors similar to another design or suggest the layout of one site was exactly what they envision for their own.
Even when it’s not a client we might take something from another design or designer for ourselves. There are a number of designers who’s work I admire and I tend to pay attention to what they do and say and seek to incorporate some of their work into my own.
There’s always a danger though, when drawing inspiration that we might cross over into complete copying. How do we stay on the right side of the line?
Inspiration that Avoids Copying
There are a number of things we can do to ensure we avoid copying that which inspires us. It begins with where we draw inspiration. The further away from the finished design you draw inspiration, the less likely the end result will be a copy.
Instead of drawing inspiration from the design of a website try drawing inspiration from different industries. Be inspired by the design of a car or a piece of furniture. Take inspiration from the layout of a magazine article or the colors of a painting. Even if you out and out copy something from the car, furniture, magazine, or painting, it’s unlikely your design will be seen as a copy since the source is far enough removed from the finished design.
For those times when you are drawing inspired from the design of another site look deeper into what inspires you. Try to understand what specifically is giving you inspiration and why.
If you like the color scheme of a site don’t just grab the hex values and use them. Think about what in the scheme you like? Look to the relationships of the colors to one another.
- Are you inspired because the palette makes use of neutral colors? Then develop your own palette of neutral colors.
- Do you like the contrast between hot and cold colors or light and dark colors? Then choose different hot and cold or light and dark colors you can contrast.
Instead of taking directly try to understand what’s going on at the core of what’s inspiring you. The less you copy directly, the further away you again are from the source in your finished work.
Every design inevitably has some things in common with designs that have existed before. We’ve all created designs with a header at the top and a footer at the bottom, but all those designs aren’t the same. In each we put enough of ourselves into the work to make the design unique enough.
I think what it ultimately means to be a link in a chain is to see the good in another’s work and do your best to understand why you think it’s good. Don’t copy that good thing you find outright. Seek its core goodness and filter it through yourself. Incorporate the ideas of others so deeply within yourself and your work that they mix with your voice and become something different and unique to you. That’s how it becomes an inspiration and not a copy.
Use what inspired you, build on it, and leave something behind to inspire someone else.
We learn and grow in part by copying others. That’s not a bad thing. What is bad is trying to pass off someone else’s work as your own. By all means copy as much as you want when learning or to help develop your voice as a designer, but stay far behind the line that separates being inspired by and copying from when doing real work and charging someone for it.
To stay behind that line separate your source of inspiration as much as you can from your finished work. Start by looking to things that aren’t web design.
When you do draw inspiration from the design of a website think critically about what inspires you and why. Take indirect inspiration instead of copying the end result directly. Pinpoint what inspires you at the core and ignore the rest.
When you finish your design revisit any sites where you drew inspiration and really look at the inspiration and your work. Be honest. If they appear to be too much alike make some changes in your own work or start again.
No one should ever look at your work and think it’s a copy of another design. If they connect your work to the original inspiration that’s ok, but they should never even think the word copy.
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