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.
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?
Note: This post includes an audio version. If you don’t see the audio above, Click here to listen.
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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Do you have anything similar to this but about writing?
I haven’t written anything on this topic specifically about writing, but the general ideas from this post would apply beyond design
For example instead of copying a sentence word for word, think about what it is about a particular sentence that you like. And then work that into your own writing.
Because writing is generally about ideas, I don’t think avoiding copying a sentence word by word will do justice to this concept.
Writing may be about ideas, but it’s not copying someone to write about the same ideas. What you can’t do is use the same words in the same order to talk about the same ideas. What I was trying to say in my comment is if you find a writer you like and want to emulate, spend time trying to understand why you like that writer or a particular passage he or she wrote. When you understand why you like the writing, you can use that in you own writing.
For example, you might like a particular writer for the rhythm of their sentences or the way the writer logically lays out an argument. If you do try to incorporate logical arguments and rhythmic prose into your own writing. That’s how you take inspiration from someone without copying them.
I agree with Steven here. In writing, there are universal ideas, archetypes, themes, and motifs that just resonate with readers, and writers draw on those all the time. e.g. the star-crossed lovers or the hero’s journey. If we avoided all known tropes, no one would be able to write anything. However, plagiarism happens when you have nothing new to add to the conversation.
That’s how I envisioned it in terms of writing. Thank you very much for sharing your perception on the matter, it has greatly helped me.
Good article. I used to do corporate design years ago and I remember specifically a client who insisted I copy the design of a movie poster that was current at the time. When I dug deeper into what he liked about that poster, it came up that he liked the way the people were depicted in an inter-related patchwork way. I was able to take that idea and design something completely different that worked (even better) for the client.
A good book to read on this subject is “Steal Like an Artist” He says that you can’t help but be influenced by artists, but eventually if you aren’t fixating on one influence but constantly trying and learning, then all the different influences will transform into your own style. (My condensed take.)
I really like what you say about copying to learn. When I studied costume design in school, one teacher had us do renderings in the style of different artists. It really is a way to stretch your artistic “vocabulary”.
One danger area I find is when I run across an artist/designer who has successfully integrated elements I’ve been working to integrate myself. Do you ever have that moment when you find an artist and suck in your breath at the recognition that this has the missing elements you are on the path to? It’s really hard to both learn from what they are doing and not copy! I have created a lot of pieces that I don’t show because I know they are too close to my inspiration. I know I’ll need to work past the learning phase of that inspiration.
Thanks Leslie. I’ve had plenty of clients who’ll point me to something and they think they want a copy of something when all they want is a certain color or the same feeling they had looking at something.
I haven’t read “Steal Like an Artist,” but I’m familiar with he author. I’m pretty sure I’d like the book.
It’s an artistic tradition to copy from those you admire to learn. Interesting idea to render in the style of different artists. I assume that wasn’t specifically costume designers and was more general artists.
I know what you mean about the danger area. Sometimes I think we will end up copying more than we realize. I think it’s something you eventually get past, but when you’re still learning it’s likely you’ll copy more than you want sometimes. As long as you don’t pass the work off as something originally yours, I don’t think it’s a huge issue.
This is something that I am concerned about as a new web-designer. I am learning alot from others websites but as result I end up coding things similar to their style when I write my own.
Also, there are only so many ways to do a layout especially for galleries layouts.There are only so many variations you can do with floats and width percentages . That eventually whether intentionally or not, your copying.
I really appreciate it but I have a question..what if you were inspired and someone told you that you are coping someone else and your telling them you drew that becuz you where inspired but they said your coping! What should I do?
Why would you need to do anything? Is the person trying to force you to remove or change your work? If not, you can ignore the person.
Hello,I was wondering, a friend asked me to do a painting for a baby shower,and gave me some links to what she was wanting it to look like. One was a baby blanket with a fox, dear, and other animals. Is it ok, in order to keep the theme, if I make it look similar in color and style, but change the positions and placement of the animals so they aren’t the same? I am also adding the baby’s name to the painting in big letters, which isn’t on the blanket at all. I don’t want to break copyright. To be honest, the blanket and painting do look good together. They match, but they arn’t a exact replica. As far as I know the company that sells the blanket does not have anything like a painting for sale.
I’m wondering how to proceed when you recognize that you have unintentionally created something similar to an already existing image in a very close market pool?
I stumbled into your enlightening explanations re the difference between inspired by and copying. An avid interest in floral art designing and the judging of show work. A fantastic design was awarded Best in Show , but later proved to be an exact replication of a design seen in a floral magazine. The proposal to the governing flower body to apply restrictive measures on show schedules was suggested to no avail. Guidance please. As to make convincing reasons for the betterment of floral art in the future.
Debunking imitation and plagiarism
What if the design is all text with one small image and you change the font as well as the image style and keep it in the same place. is that copying the design still? or is it similar yet a different design?