In Defense of Copying Design

Design, but simple.

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Remember when Apple used to promote skeuomorphism in user interface design? At the time, they claimed that recreating real-life textures such as brushed metal, bound leather, and wood veneers on screen supposedly makes it easier for users to understand how apps work.

Only a few short years later, they’d thrown the idea out the window, when the trend of flat, immensely minimalistic interfaces came about. Along with Apple, the entire design community jumped on the new trend.

The truth is, design elements and ideas are used and reused in different projects and even throughout different trends. This is one of the major differences between art and design. While art benefits from being completely original and experiments with new ideas, reinventing working concepts in design can have a negative effect on the user experience. Interfaces become less familiar to the users and therefore, much less intuitive.

In the golden age of Flash websites, web designers competed to create the most out-there website, often hurting the usability of these interfaces.

As a founder-designer or a beginner designer, sourcing for established ideas instead of reinventing the wheel will give you the “edge” you’re looking for.

This is what designers often refer to as “finding inspiration”, “design convention”, and “best practice”. These are all fancy euphemisms for copying.

—Jarrod Drysdale, author of Bootstrapping Design source

Yes, I am basically telling you to steal design — or at least to seek for inspiration. I had personally always believed that recreating others’ work is the fastest way to learn a new skill.

Now hear me out, I know this sounds crazy.

Stand on The Shoulders of Giants

Masters at any skill took long hours (if not months or years) to perfect their act. They must have made a number of mistakes and taken a number of wrong turns. My guess is that the actual practising of the skill took only 20% of their time. The rest was experimenting, trying out different ways of getting to the final result, and sourcing for the information.

You can avoid those if you just forget about your ego for a second and copy their work. This way, you focus on exactly how to do the thing, instead of figuring out the entire philosophy behind a particular skill.

One of the simplest tricks that professional writers learn can greatly ease the process of getting ready to write: look for a model of the kind of article you need to do, then dissect it, analyze it – and copy it. […]

Novice writers often make two mistakes: they think they need to be entirely original, and they think they need to wait for “inspiration.” Take it from the pros: for most kinds of writing, originality and inspiration are overrated.

—Gerry McGovern, copywriter source

Back to the topic. Assuming you’re only starting out with design, you probably have no idea about what good design looks like. I’m not trying to insult you, it’s just the honest truth. It will take at least a few months of looking and dissecting great design to really figure out what makes some layouts look good or bad. Recreating beautiful designs can help with that immensely.

Second of all, there’s a big chance that your competition had hired professional designers to design their branding assets. If you’re a founder-designer (and there’s a good chance you are, given the website you’re reading this on) you’ll want to imitate as much as you can from the “big guys”. Have you had the time and patience to learn everything from scratch, you’d be studying for a business degree, not reading this blog post right now.

The best you can do is to “stand on the shoulders of the giants”. Trust me, It’ll save you lots of figuring things out.

How Not To Get Caught

Hold on. Doesn’t this mean a bunch of copyright issues?

Well, yes. I wouldn’t recommend copying other people’s websites and claiming authorship over them, other than to learn how they’d been made.

What you can (and should) copy, however, are the concepts. Love the way that colour scale makes you feel? Jot it down. Like that font combination? Grab it. Some web app has a fabulous footer design? Screengrab!

New Zealand’s Internet Party and the new Mailchimp Pro both use fonts Graphik and Open Sans.

You can copy:

  • colour scales or individual colours
  • font combinations (Make sure to get the licenses for them though!)
  • specific design solutions (For example, pricing tables. No reason to reinvent the wheel here)
  • layouts (Website layouts look so similar these days I was able to build an app that banks on this.)
BlueAcorn and BlueHost both use the same blue-white-black colour scale.

Oftentimes, your natural creativity will take over when you’re recreating a certain element of your designs and the stolen design will adopt a brand new look. But sometimes, simply combining various elements will make the end result look totally original. A word of caution, though — don’t copy more than a single element from each source and never directly copy-and-paste anything from anywhere. Recreate instead.

Every writer will tell you that it sucks to start from a blank page. Sourcing for inspiration is how you get un-stuck and get moving. Then, it’s just a matter of tailoring the “copied” ideas to your own ideas and branding.

This blog post is a chapter from my book on design. Check it out here!

Design, but simple.

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