What constitutes an original idea, based on a similar concept? What is your stance on borrowing ideas from what others have done? When does it get too close to stealing?

06.14.2010 / Question submitted by: Matt Van Ekeren

Author: Matt Van Ekeren 3 replies. Share yours.

Creative Process Discussion

The Tenfold Collective:

Originality is something people like to talk about a lot. And we all have our own hopes centered around it. It’s an artist / designer preoccupation, one that makes you feel very proud or very ashamed as the case may be. Because of this preoccupation, it’s important to remember in the context of this discussion that whatever we’re doing, it most likely came from somewhere else. This is not a cop-out. The evidence is in every freshman art history class if you’re paying attention. We can’t avoid ‘borrowing’ ideas from others. It happens naturally with both visual and non-visual input. So, in the sense that we all stand on someone’s shoulders, there’s a certain amount of inevitability.

Knowing this, it seems that as far as design integrity goes, what matters is what we actively do with the visual input, how we process it to create something of our own. It seems reasonable to talk about this in terms of levels, let’s call them inspiration, mimicry, and stealing.

Inspiration : Looking at other work and admiring typographic style or other aesthetic execution.

This is the way we learn, visually. When we see something we like it gets logged in the database of visual information and processed. It might be a movie title, a photograph, an old sign. It may be completed design work. But If you’re truly working a project and completely engaged, there’s no way to steal, there just isn’t one solution that can really work for two distinct projects (and all projects are distinct). Something made for a particular person or occasion can very rarely be ‘plugged in’ with any sort of legitimacy and so is rarely a temptation.

If you aren’t familiar with Bruce Mau, you need to be (www.brucemaudesign.com). We’re big fans. Though I have never met him, I would like to think he is a bit of a mentor… all right, that may be a stretch, but he has definitely been a major influence on me. In Mr. Mau’s incomplete manifesto he states:

35. Imitate.
Don’t be shy about it. Try to get as close as you can. You’ll never get all the way, and the separation might be truly remarkable. We have only to look to Richard Hamilton and his version of Marcel Duchamp’s large glass to see how rich, discredited, and underused imitation is as a technique.

Mimicry : Looking at work with a particular sensibility and recreating the style in your own project.

This is a part of the design learning curve. Designers, just as painters, often begin by looking at the work of the masters and recreating aspects of the work in order to understand. It’s a process of identifying those who have a similar tendencies, but more experience, and learning from them by doing. This isn’t a carbon copy of the ‘masters’ work, but it’s often clearly reminiscent. One could be told, it reminds me of Rand or Sagmeister but wouldn’t be told it looks just like a particular logo or piece of design from either. While work that stays extremely close to a ‘masters’ may be considered immature (in a formal sense) to us, it doesn’t fit the bill of stealing.

Stealing : A completed piece (logo/brand/poster whatever) created by someone else, is reproduced to be used by another person or agency without permission.

We’re talking flat out lifting here. This isn’t something that inspired process or informed style. It’s literally taken as is. Tweaks may have been made, some colors changed, the different business name made appropriate but it’s essentially the same.

We all like to get judgy about this (the phrase ‘the guilty dog barks loudest’ comes to mind) but more often than not, stealing or lifting seems to spring from insecurity rather than laziness or a desire to be malicious. However, no matter what, it won’t win you any friends, or respect.

In regards to true creative process, it takes us all a while to find our way, and our own personal style and voice as designers. In truth, it’s what we’re all working hard at all the time. The more confident we become, the smaller the temptation to mimic or lift. The more we encourage each other to find our own way, the less reproduction we’ll see.

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  1. Design Kompany

    An original idea. That can’t be too hard. The library must be full of them. ~Stephen Fry

    I think Fry’s library is both an apt metaphor and a practical yardstick to this question here. If you borrowed books from the library, instead of buying them, and read them all, is that stealing from the authors? How about if you sold those books? How about if you wrote a new book based on what you read, and published it for sale?

    The distinctions here are: 1. Does the means by which you “get” an idea matter? 2. What do you do with the ideas borrowed?

    Our belief is that you should always try to generate good ideas specifically suited to solving the problem at hand. Will the final answer resemble something that’s already been done? Several brilliant mathematicians working independently are thought to have arrived at the fundamental theorems of calculus. Who should get credit? How do we decide?

    Admittedly, that is sometimes a concern, but not being original is secondary to whether it’s a good idea to start with.

    So how do you come up with good, and hopefully original, ideas? Here are some guidelines that we personally try to stick to…

    1. Always think about the problem you are solving. What’s the message? Who’s the audience?
    2. Generate lots of ideas. Lots.
    3. Resist going straight to logo sites or books for inspiration.
    4. Sketch out your ideas on paper. Keep them rough so you can toss them if you don’t like them, and move on quickly to the next thought.
    5. If you go looking for inspiration, try to go at it from a skewed angle. Read a book related to the subject/client. Browse a classical art book if it’s a modern sports brand you are sketching for. Look at type specimens from a completely different era than would be appropriate. Take a picture of every cereal box in a grocery store when NOT doing a cereal box design. In other words, avoid going to cliched inspiration sources (see #3)
    6. There’s no bad idea when brainstorming! Focus on piling on new ideas.
    7. Take a walk.

  2. Lou Powell

    I found it ironic that Mao used Hamilton’s imitation of Duchamp to illustrate his point. Duchamp made the exact point in Urinal. Even in imitation there is relevance in interpretation. That is art, regardless of the medium. Great article!

What constitutes an original idea, based on a similar concept? What is your stance on borrowing ideas from what others have done? When does it get too close to stealing?