Great Designers Steal?

By WebdesignerDepot Staff Posted Jul. 06, 2009 Reading time: 4 minutes

You often hear designers say, “Good designers copy. Great designers steal.”

Well, anyone who says this is one of three types of designers:

One who copies, one who steals or one who admits that not copying and stealing is hard but still tries not to anyway.

For some reason, a lot of web designers believe that there’s nothing truly unique left to create and that there is no such thing as originality.

I disagree, or at least I don’t want to accept that notion. You shouldn’t either.


Designers who copy

These people are at the bottom of the design pyramid, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. You have to start somewhere.

Designers who copy are novices who haven’t yet grasped what makes a great design great, and so they imitate.

They frequent web galleries, pick a site they like and find a way to recreate and adapt it to the project at hand. This is how anyone learns anything. In fact, this is how we learn to, among other things, walk and talk as babies. We imitate to build a foundation of experience.

My very first website was a fan site for the anime Dragon Ball Z, which I loved as a kid. In the process of creating this site, I taught myself HTML by copying the code from another Dragon Ball Z site that I liked.

I literally copied and pasted all of the code, but then I went through it line by line, learning what each tag did. By the time I designed my next site, I was able not only to understand code but to create my own code from scratch.


Designers who steal

These are, of course, the people who say, “Good designers copy. Great designers steal.” Filmmaker Jim Jarmusch once said:

“Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light, and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery; celebrate it if you feel like it.”

This sums up these burglars well. Once a designer has copied another’s design and feel they have a grasp of what makes a great design great, their natural inclination is to go and create their own great and unique design.

But they soon discover that doing that is not as easy as the other designer made it seem. They learn that the dirty secret of many great designers is that they steal.

In design, to steal is to take inspiration from other people’s work. Designers who steal may frequent online design galleries, like designers who copy, but they know how to hide their sources.

“The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.” —Albert Einstein

They take only pieces of sites or just the overall concept or theme of something. In 2003, designer Cameron Moll wrote an article titled  “Good Designers Copy, Great Designers Steal” in which he shows the source of a logo he created.

Moll explains:

“The chances of someone else having used this particular piece of clip art were very slim. And the chances of the intended audience — or anyone else, for that matter — being familiar with such a piece were even slimmer. Translation? A perfect source for stealing.”


Designers who try not to copy or steal

It’s a fact that we can’t help but be influenced by our surroundings. Designers steal all the time without realizing it.

A designer may look at the curvy lines of Moll’s logo above and months later may create a logo very similar to it without actually recalling where they got the idea from.

Designers in this category are aware of this habit. They know that creating something truly unique is almost impossible, but they try anyway.

To try, they may start by looking at online print galleries, instead of web galleries. They may also begin looking at package design, architecture, photography, nature—anything but web design—in an attempt to be authentically inspired rather than simply steal.

They look not just for design that works but rather for ways to make designs better.

After walking around a park in search of inspiration for a blog on nature, a designer may find him or herself using images of grass and soil to dress up the footer of the site to look like ground. They might add some birds to the header.

Or, after sitting on a bench and noticing the relationship between foreground and background, they might play around with the user’s sense of perception.

The further a designer who seeks inspiration moves away from web design, the more likely their designs will turn out truly original.


To sum up…

The pursuit of originality on the web is not a lost cause. The web industry is still young, and some things have yet to be attempted.

Once you understand the basics of design, try to think outside the box, and try new and different things. Be atypical and unique. Experiment. Don’t be afraid to design from the heart. But keep this in mind:

“Things which are different in order to be different are seldom better, but that which is made to be better is almost always different.” —Dieter Rams

In our striving to be unique and original, trying different things for their own sake is okay because they could potentially lead to better things. It’s a lot like throwing darts at a target blindfolded. You may never hit the target, but you just might learn something in the process. But do try hard to make something better than just different.

Not too long ago, people thought the Earth was flat and the center of the universe. Not too long ago, either, designers used the <blink> tag and used tables to build websites.

Theories and conventions are always being questioned, challenged and broken, and they should. If you believe a better way is possible, you will often find your way to it.

“The most innovative designers consciously reject the standard option box and cultivate an appetite for thinking wrong.” —Marty Neumeier

Written exclusively for WDD by Lucian Tucker.

What type of designer are you? Please leave your comments below…