We’re often victims of design piracy. Roughly once a week someone emails us with an anonymous tip that someone has ripped off our “UI look and feel” and is using it for their own site or their own app. It’s amazing what people and businesses think they can get away with.

We send the violators an email letting them know they can’t take our work, our words, our code, or our design. 98% of the time the violators respond favorably and take the design down or alter it sufficiently that it’s no longer recognizable as our design. 1% of the time it takes a few emails before they acquiesce. And 1% of the time it requires legal intervention.

A blank canvas

They usually apologize by saying they didn’t know it was wrong or that their hired design firm did it. But then sometimes they say “Come on, how many different ways are there to design a web page or a web app?” That infuriates me. The web browser is a blank canvas. A big empty box that can hold almost anything. Fill it with something original, something you can call your own.

Inspiration in time

Whenever I run into designer’s block or just need visual design inspiration I turn to the world of wrist watches. I’ve posted on this topic before, but it comes up again often so I figured I’d hit it again.

A tiny canvas with endless possibilities

A wrist watch is a tiny canvas with something to keep that canvas tied to your wrist. It’s just a couple inches round or square or triangular. It has a fixed, common purpose: Tell time. The rules of time are understood. 24 hours in a day, usually displayed as 12. Your brain can tell if it’s AM or PM.

And yet somehow, with these physical and practical constraints, watch design flourishes. From analog to digital to a combination of the two, tens of thousands of designs are born. Different type, different proportions, different shapes, different perspectives, different indicators, different buttons, different bezels, etc. Fresh new designs hit the market all the time. Here are about a hundred different interpretations of the same question: “What time is it right now?”

If watch designers can do it, web designers can do it

So if someone can make a 2” circle look unique, you can make a million pixels look unique. Don’t sell yourself short. Don’t think there’s only a few ways to display content. Don’t think there’s only a couple ways to style a sidebar. Don’t think there’s only a couple different designs for a header with tabs. Don’t think a list always has to look the same or there’s only one way to distinguish time-sensitive information. Don’t think there’s only a couple ways to call something out as important or high priority.

As a web designer you have a lot more options and variables and possibilities than a watch designer. Build something that’s yours. Make something you can call your own. Make your own mark. Cut the excuses and be a designer.