When I go to write for a magazine, or myself, I have to be sure not to consume any literature on similar topics, for fear of accidentally copying, or replacing my voice with theirs. Copying is common, if not human nature. We see copying everywhere — in music, movies, writing, fashion, mannerisms, marketing, and yes, design.
All design is copied?
Visual influence is almost impossible to avoid. Where a writer or filmmaker may be able to isolate themselves from outside influence for their craft, we see design and branding in nearly everything around us. Sleep is likely the only time our brains are not soaking in visual design, and even then we’re likely just storing away impressions. We could create something today that has influence from something that left an impression on us years ago- an ad, a product, a logo, a blog, and so forth.
When we’re designing, we are constantly recycling impressions from something else without realizing it. Even if we could track down the original creator, how could it ever be proven they weren’t influenced by something/someone else?
The purpose of design
The purpose of design is to solve problems and communicate a story while adding uniqueness to the end result. Humans have faces and personalities and voices. The purpose of design is to give these attributes to businesses, brands and companies.
The beauty of copying
They always say:
Imitation is the greatest form of flattery.
This makes sense — when we see things that are working, we want to adapt those for ourselves. And when we see things that are not working, we want to avoid them. This ability to benefit from the experiences of others, rather have to endure them ourselves, is what allows the human race to progress as it does. This is also what makes you talk just like your friends.
Aside from mimicking an idea, there are established symbols in our world and culture that have a known meaning. So, rather try to re-invent a way to communicate with someone what to push to turn something on or off, I’d just use the power symbol. Symbols are like language, and there’s no need to invent a new language.
It is actually a really good idea to take what’s working for others and use that to solve similar problems. There’s seldom reason to reinvent the wheel. We’re in a world of algorithms, where computers make decisions based on past data — humans can do the same. Hundreds of thousands of companies and people have experienced the problems we’re tasked to solve — some people had bad solutions, some had ok and some had great. Adapting these solutions to our problems allows us some peace of mind to know we’ve implemented a good solution and frees up our limited brain and decision making power for more problems. Like differentiating.
The problem of copying
As a business, we want our brand to be unique. They also always say:
Differentiate or die.
So, as designers the challenge becomes how to thread the needle of taking what’s working for others, incorporating that into our design, and have a unique end result.
What’s the difference between copying and stealing?
I think the key here is how it’s used, the intention and the effort. If a rip off design is in the same industry, an exact replica of the original and targeting the same markets — I’d say this is stealing, and a big no-no.
Say a design has similarities, but it was adapted to be specific for the copier — and it’s in different industries, addressing different problems and clients. I’d say this is copying, and ok.
Take for example the two logos below. There are obvious similarities, but I think they’re both doing a good job of adapting the work to suit their unique needs and markets.
Ultimately, I think if you’re just mimicking another design identically to solve the exact same problem — that’s stealing. But if you’re taking the elements you like for solving your problem and building on that work for a better solution for yourself, that’s copying.
Is original possible anymore?
What do you think?