Over the last few months I’ve noticed a ton of inspiring websites. Camerion.io, Art Lebedev, n+1, Show of Force, and on and on. And everytime I look at one of these sites, I think to myself “Oh I’m so inspired. Look at how they did this. Look at that paragraph style. Look at that header. I feel so full of ideas.”
Then it’s time to work on a new project, and did all the inspiration make a difference? Actually, no. Most of the work I do is looking like all the other work I’ve done for months and months and years. Apparently looking at cool stuff isn’t enough to increase your skill. It’s easy to look at some stuff and say “oh that’s inspiring, that gives me ideas” without moving an inch.
So I got thinking. How did I develop the basic skills I have right now? Mostly by copying heroes. When you’re fresh starting out, you have no fear of diving in and copying something directly. It’s like playing guitar. When you start playing guitar all you want to do is play the first verse of your favorite song. Big success! You don’t need to write the next great guitar symphony or a hit single. It’s totally satisfying to learn to play something somebody else can already play. And you get better by doing it.
And it was the same way with design. I was totally psyched to copy a Müller-Brockmann poster, a Designgraphik composition, or an Apple UI. Merely executing the copy was a thrill. But now every design is supposed to be the next great thing. And as days and weeks and months go by, the design level stays the same while the aspiration goes higher and higher.
So maybe it’s time to take one of these Fridays off and just copy something.
Rahulon 17 Jun 10
Good point and that’s kind of how I feel about your design work, Ryan. In fact, I have a blog post drafted about how something I’m working on is criticised by my colleagues as being a “37signals rip off” but to me, it’s great design that I want to reproduce because I agree with it. Where do you draw the line between “rip off” and “inspiration”?
Anonymous Cowardon 17 Jun 10
Rahul, copying someone for your own private educational purposes is one thing, but putting that copy out into the world is another thing completely. The former is learning, the latter is stealing.
Ryanon 17 Jun 10
So don’t be a hater if my design looks suspiciously like yours. We cool?!
Chrison 17 Jun 10
On the other hand, you wrote in a blog post long time ago, that copying is just not enough. There’s a special reason why this button is shaped like this, why this font is used etc. So you have to get the idea, reason and the concept behind it to learn.
Ericon 17 Jun 10
Great thought. I’m going to copy something cool right now.
Jimmy Chanon 18 Jun 10
It is interesting when Jason Fried stated “Copying skips understanding”.
Desmenon 18 Jun 10
The main points are 1) Learn the basic 2) You learn by doing 3) You do not have to reinvent the wheel
For example, when we learn a language, we learn the alphabet and we lean a few words. We also listen to other people speak and we pick up things like sounds and grammar. After learning the basics, we can from phases, then sentences, then paragraphs, then essays, maybe even a book.
You are not going to pick up a new language and write a book without a least learning the basics. The process of learning the basics and doing is where you start to pick up the understanding.
Nor do you have to make a new language to be able to write a book.
Jake Maueron 18 Jun 10
I’ve did something similar with images from Ffffound.com. The goal is to get as far as I can in 5 minutes but I always seem to go over. It’s been a long time since I’ve done a new one. I think this post will be my inspiration to keep going. Ffffound in five
Benjamin Welchon 18 Jun 10
You took the words right out of the back of my mind. Great Post!
RSon 18 Jun 10
It’s true you don’t get understanding from copying, but can develop technique. Copying some excellent typography for example will give you the experience of learning how to put the letters in a certain spatial arrangement. You still won’t know why the letters are arranged like that, but at least you’ve learned how to put them there. We need both sides of a craft, the ability to mechanically do things and the understand of why to do this instead of that.
Jimmy Chanon 18 Jun 10
@Desmen I thought we discuss about turning inspiration into something new. Not learn the basic (although Ryan take a sample learning a guitar).
The main point in this article is inspiration. You can take inspiration for something from many things.
Bertineon 18 Jun 10
This afternoon I had some free time at the end of the day so I did this. I took an HTML5\CSS3 site and copied it to figure out how it worked. Then I started editing it to “make it my own”.
Of course, I didn’t have any real use for it but now I feel like I have a much better handle on those design elements.
Jimmy Chanon 18 Jun 10
I’ll take a side with JF.
Derrek Pearsonon 18 Jun 10
I feel like there is a missing part of the story. You sort of went from talking about inspiration and being inspired by all this great design to then constantly producing the same design. You then jumped to learning a new technique by copying something. The pieces don’t complete fit.
But I see where you’re going, I get the gist and when I read this I got kinda excited and said: yeah! I know exactly how you feel!
I think, yes, you get inspired by looking at all these great ideas. You get these ideas, but then when you go to implement them your stuck with the same bag of tricks. The same set of techniques and you kinda only know how to use them in combination in so many ways. At least that’s true for me.
Now back to copying and learning technique. I think the connection is that by copying something you learn NEW techniques, new tricks, you get new tools. With those new tools, you can bring it back home and apply that to those new ideas. You can then build upon what has been done to take it to the next level.
Rahulon 18 Jun 10
That JF quote is right on the money but it still remains hard to distinguish between the two in my opinion. You can be inspired by a line, but if you copy that line, is it inspiration or stealing? It’s just a line. Its angle, thickness, color and stroke are properties of the line that were put there by the original artist. But is it unique enough to be considered something that can be stolen? If you take the color and angle but not the thickness and stroke, are you stealing something?
And if you apply that thinking to something bigger, like the “See plans and pricing” button, or a title for a plans & pricing page, or the visual style of tabs in account screens, or the attitude of an entire website, is it inspiration or stealing?
By copying it while trying to understand it, are you copying the way Jason talks about copying – that is, without comprehending why something was done – or are you taking steps to reach that understanding by the copying itself?
Hobbeson 18 Jun 10
good guitarists copy, great guitarists steal. or maybe that was great guitarists steal strings or use steel strings. erm. no. the first. definitely the first. :) and you gotta copy without cheating – no looking at the transcription/css first!
David O.on 18 Jun 10
True, and the guitarist analogy you mentioned illustrates this, understanding on the other hand requires research, asking questions then finding answers and finally developing.
Jasonon 18 Jun 10
I lead a team of young, very talented designers. Many are just out of school. With one of them I noticed she was starting to settle into a specific design look throughout all her project. I called this her ‘wheel-house’ design – the place she was very comfortable.
One month after mentioning her design similarities I jokingly said ‘I bet you cannot go 1 month without putting a glassy look on something’. To her huge credit she saw the opportunity to challenge herself and she took my bet.
I think that having style is good, but wheel-house style can limit your growth as a designer and as an artist saying nothing of eventually growing bored with your own work.
Sam Schuurmanon 18 Jun 10
This resonates so deeply! Nowadays with the massive amount of information available online I’m guaranteed to read something that inspires me almost every single day…but do I action this inspiration? No! So I Usually end up doing diddley squat with it.
I really like the idea of actually setting aside “time to act” on this inspiration that you get from others (by copying) – I currently pool all my inspiration into Evernote and then never get round to dealing with it….not the best system.
Perhaps I’ll lock in one day a week also….
But on the flip side there’s also a great TED Talk by Stefan Sagmeister about the importance of sabbatical for re-charging your creative batteries…semi contradicts the idea of copying as a path to inspiration…
It also resonates deeply, sometimes you need to take a step out of doing mode so that you can stop copying your previous work and make use of your own inspiration to come up with something truly creative and unique!
I think that both points are incredibly valid: Your method of copying as a way to gain greater skills, but the idea of sabbatical also seems incredible useful once you’ve copied enough to acquire the skills you need that you just need to find some time and space to be creative.
Samon 18 Jun 10
Sorry I hit “Post” instead of “Preview”
This is the link to the TED Talk that I refer to above: Stefan Sagmeister: The power of time off
Aaron Trankon 18 Jun 10
I find that my own creativity is an iterative process. I enjoy looking at great code, great content, and great design because it fuels my creative cycle! To use a Biblical analogy, “iron sharpens iron”. I hope that the web “great” continues to rub off on the web “good”.
AJon 19 Jun 10
I have been drawing Celtic knot designs for years. When I find a Celtic design that is new to me, I copy it. it becomes part of my toolbox. I won’t have to use it exactly as I saw it because in the process of copying, I became intimately familiar with the ratios, the lines, the empty space, the balance, the symmetry and the asymmetry. By copying it, I learned why the original was shaped in the way that it was. When you copy a website, you should be learning how to find the exact font, and in so doing, you should start to understand why one was chosen over another one that looked almost exactly, but not quite, the same. Same with color choices and with geometry and balance.
GeeIWonderon 19 Jun 10
When you copy a website, you should be learning how to find the exact font, and in so doing, you should start to understand why one was chosen over another one that looked almost exactly, but not quite, the same.
See, I completely disagree. And furthermore, if this is what JF or Ryan or any of the other signals are or have said, then I think it’s also a final and authoritative repudiation of the ‘you learning by success’ rant which periodically shows up.
There’s no such thing as confirmatory evidence, and ‘learning’ this way is in fact not learning at all.
Besides, there’s just as good a case for turning a good breakfast into skill as inspiration. Assuming one leads to another is tenuous at best.
Brad Walkeron 20 Jun 10
It is interesting when you analize two phrases completly isolated. A phrase for itself mean nothing. You need to understand the context.
Ryan Bollenbachon 21 Jun 10
Wow, this is awesome. There’s actually another article about the very same thing at: http://css-tricks.com/feature-table-design/.
This is an example where Chris Coyier actually emulates a table design in his own way.
I think it’s cool to re-create things but at the same time.. you should still innovate when making your own work.
Kyle Steedon 21 Jun 10
I was a bit disappointed by this article. It seemed to only scratch the surface at a much bigger problem. Or to put it another way, it was like putting a bandaid on an open flesh wound caused by severe mortar damage. Ok, that’s a bit dramatic, but serious, I don’t mean to be so critical, but where is the “how to” in this article. All I got was how you started out in design, and likened that to playing guitar, and then ended on a low note with just taking a day off to continue down the same road you started off on.
I don’t think there is an easy answer to this proposal. I know I do the same thing myself, where I will see some design that another person/group did and set out to mimic it. But I also know that when I “unplug” from the internet and sit down with a pen and paper and just start drawing what come to mind, I can pretty much trust my imagination to lead me to new places. I think we have to let go of the fear that we’ll never be as good as our “hero’s” and just be ourselves. It’s not without much practice, and much failure, that we can really build any type of skill. Sure, some are born with natural talent, but it takes time to hone that talent in to a skill.
I hope I didn’t come off too harshly or anything, I respect you guys here and what you’re doing. I just think this article left out the key element to which the title offered.
Martialon 21 Jun 10
Technique without understanding = wanking
Understanding without technique = “expertise”
Understanding with technique = mastery
Mind you, you have to progress toward mastery – and you can begin from either end. I’d only insult someone who showed no inclination toward progress.(Insult by calling them a wanker or using irony quotes on ‘em; yes, these are equivalent insults, dammit!)
Glenboton 21 Jun 10
Funny how when designers copy it’s considered “stealing” but when programmers copy it’s considered efficient and great.
As long as you understand what your copying and can replicate it on your own, who cares? We are all here to help each other out.
Reminds me of this quote: “Bad artists copy. Great artists steal.”— Pablo Picasso
Levy Carneiro Jr.on 21 Jun 10
I guess some people thought this article was:
“How do you turn inspiration into creative work?”
But in reality it’s:
“How do you turn inspiration into skill?”
Ryan is merely talking about skills.
Now, it’d cool to discuss in another article the ways everyone use to create new stuff after being inspired by the work of others.
Note: copying is cool for your self / study, of course. Releasing to the public makes it stealing.
MT Hearton 22 Jun 10
All you really need to do is understand (or copy if you prefer) basic design principles of Contrast Repetition Alignment Proximity
Add in a little Visual Hierarchy and you’re all set. Robin Williams’ The Non-Designer’s Design Book: Design and Typographic Principles for the Visual Novice is excellent.
RSon 23 Jun 10
Thanks MT Heart. That’s a really cool book recommendation.
Robert Edmondson 23 Jun 10
Interesting article, Ryan.
You make a solid point about imitating, everybody has to start some where. I work for an SEO company, Pear Analytics, and we are about to release our new product. At first, we began by researching our competitors and seeing what they did right. We were hoping to possibly take all the great aspects of the various successful SEO companies and make it into one product. Then we began to actually think. If we imitate, why would customers use us rather than the original? We squandered that idea real quick. Long story short, we defined the area of SEO that we are best at, web page analysis, and put our strong hold on it!
In fact, I invite you and your readers to sign up for our beta release of our re-enginnered free Web Page Analysis Tool and look forward to any feedback.
This discussion is closed.