How To Steal Like A Designer And Produce Better Work

Good artists borrow great artists steal
Pablo Picasso

I’m sure you’ve seen the above quote before. What does it really mean? Is it an ok from one of the world’s great artists to literally steal from others? Is it an excuse to ignore copyright? No and no. It’s a much deeper statement about the creative process.

Pablo Picasso - Mandolin and a Glass of Pernod (1911)

Steal Like an Artist

What does it mean to steal like an artist? What was Picasso trying to say?

When you borrow something you plan on giving it back. At least you’re supposed to. When you steal something you make it your own. It’s the making it your own that Picasso was suggesting.

Great artists stealing doesn’t mean they copy the work of others and pass it off as their own. It means they so absorb the work and ideas of others that they can recombine everything with their own work and thoughts to create something truly theirs.

It’s a similar idea to the Medici effect, the idea of finding intersections at the crossroads of ideas in different disciplines and combining what you find into something new or unique to your discipline.

To make ideas your own you need to take them apart to understand how they were put together and why they were put together in a certain way. You have to assimilate and internalize those ideas so they mix with your own.

A few years ago I published a post about developing your voice as a blogger and suggested that your voice is what comes out after everything you take in is filtered through your thoughts and experiences.

Your voice as a writer, an artist, or a designer is the end product of this artistic theft Picasso talks about.

Your voice comes from filtering things through the sum of all your thoughts and experience. When you steal from other artists you do two things.

  • Provide new source material to run through your filter
  • Modify your filter for future source material

Vincent Van Gogh often referred to himself as a link in a chain. He saw his work as building on the work of those who came before him and leaving something behind for those who came after to build on top of.

In essence he stole from past masters, internalized what he took, reformed it as something of his own, and left it for others to then steal and continue the process.

Stolen poster

How You Can Steal And Grow as a Designer

Assuming you’re on board with the idea of stealing as Picasso meant it here are a few ideas for how you can learn to steal better in order to grow as a designer.

Collect

Again the stealing part is about taking things in so your first step to steal and grow as a designer is to collect.

As Austin Kleon points out it’s not about collecting indiscriminately, but rather selectively. Much of what’s below is how to collect selectively.

Dirt path in the woods

Set a Path

Have you ever noticed once you become interested in some topic that you start noticing information about that topic wherever you go. I know when I start studying something like typography it seems like every magazine or blog post is about typefaces and line-height, and measure.

It’s not some mystical thing at work. It’s simply that you’re more attentive to the things you’re interested in.

It’s important to set the path for your collections. What finds its way into your consciousness is what you develop an interest in. Put a little thought into how you want to grow as a designer. Set a direction for yourself. You’ll discover yourself finding more things on that path to collect.

Seek Quality

You’re only going to be as good as the ideas and techniques you collect. Garbage in, garbage out. If you want to produce the best work you need to take in the best ideas.

What we collect and take in becomes the source material for what we create. The better the source material, the better the resulting end product.

Fountain pen and glasses resting on notebook

Read, Read, Read

One of the best ways to collect ideas is to read the ideas of others. Again read selectively. Read those things you’re interested in and seek quality over quantity. Read the theory behind design to understand why different design principles work.

Look Deeper

When I first started learning to build websites I would stop whenever I found a site I liked and start pouring over the code. I’d look at how the html was structured and how the css presented that html. I’d ask myself why the designer had chosen to do things that way and think if there was a better way to accomplish the same thing.

When I didn’t have time to study the code at that moment, I’d bookmark the site and come back later to study it.

That’s still one of the best way to learn how to develop websites. Think of your favorite sites as your mentors. They’re all willing to tell you exactly how to develop a site of your own. Study their designs. Ask yourself why one design element is red or why another is off to the corner.

When you come across sites giving away snippets of code don’t just copy the snippet and paste it into your site. When you copy code like that you borrow it. You don’t make that code your own. You won’t understand how to apply that code to a different problem or how to fix it when it doesn’t work. You won’t own the code. It will own you.

Read the tutorial explaining how the code works or better yet study it on your own. You can certainly use the code without doing either, but again you won’t own it that way. You’ll be borrowing it.

Always look deeper than what’s on the surface in everything. You borrow the surface. When you dig deeper you steal what you unearth.

Live in the Crossroads

Don’t limit yourself to collecting from the world of design. Look beyond design for inspiration and ideas. Collect things from other disciplines and think how they might be applied to a design problem.

Be receptive to The Medici Effect (PDF)

Learn how other industries solve problems. Ask yourself if those solutions will work for some design problems you come across. Be open to taking in ideas that seem unrelated on the surface. Those ideas will modify your filter in unique and interesting ways.

Write more to be a better designer and design more to be a better writer. Learn a wider variety of things to see the commonalities between them.

Homeland security police car

Summary

Good artists borrow. They copy the techniques of others, but they never make those techniques their own. They never learn to apply them in ways beyond how they were originally presented.

Great artists steal. They internalize the ideas and techniques of others, mix them with everything else they have inside, and release them in new and interesting ways. By stealing they make those ideas and techniques their own.

Stealing in the sense Picasso meant isn’t about ripping off your fellow designers. It’s about learning what you can from them and filtering their ideas through yourself in order to build something new.

Be a link in the chain of design. Build on the ideas of others and leave behind something of yourself for other designers to build on.

In this way we all become better and we all push design further.

Download a free sample from my book, Design Fundamentals.

5 comments

  1. A fantastic collection of tips and insider advice about what it’s really like to be a designer, this article kept me up far too late.

  2. Ahhh inspirational :) Picasso’s quote is one of my wife’s favorites (she’s a ceramics artist). Her interpretation of the quote is identical with yours. Her opinion (perhaps even more appropriate in the world of clay than in graphical / web design) is that it is impossible for an artist to copy another idea. The idea always mutates in the hands of another artist, takes on new characteristics, is adjusted to a new aesthetic.

    • Thanks Glenn. It’s a great quote isn’t it. If you haven’t read Austin Kleon’s post (it’s the first link in the post), it’s much more inspirational than this one. After reading Austin’s post awhile back I started thinking about this one.

      That’s an interesting point about working in clay. It’s so physical it would be hard to every copy someone exactly. You really have no choice, but to add something of your own to the mix.

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