Share, Don’t Steal (why we copy)

I’m totally guilty on this one Your Honor. I have copied sites before, but I have learned my lesson and I will never do it again. I promise. Why do we do it? As designers we have all done it, we have all blatantly copied somebody’s design. Why do we do this? Are we not […]


I’m totally guilty on this one Your Honor. I have copied sites before, but I have learned my lesson and I will never do it again. I promise.

Why do we do it?

As designers we have all done it, we have all blatantly copied somebody’s design. Why do we do this? Are we not brilliant visual composers? Can’t we create our own web masterpieces? I believe we do this for one of three reasons:

  • We are just starting out in the web design world – design immaturity.
  • We think successful or popular websites have great design – design popularity.
  • We are told to from the client or management what to design – design pressure.

The first reason, design immaturity, is a natural thing. When we first start out we really want to impress our managers and/or clients. We tend to look for divine interweb inspiration only to wind up ripping someone’s design off. We don’t really know how to properly find inspiration so we default back to mimicry. Hopefully we all go through this phase quickly in our careers. But designing for popularity and design pressure are battles that we will fight through out the remainder of our careers.

Taking on a new design project can be a daunting task if you have no ideas and you have no inspiration to draw from. When you can’t find inspiration and ideas are just not coming to you, its easy to take a popular website and copy it in order to get the project rolling. This kind of thing always leads me down the path of self doubt, where I question my worth as a designer. I get stuck not knowing where to start and if nothing stops my self loathing I start feeling the itch to copy.

But sometimes as designers we have brilliant ideas but due to pressure from management, partners, or any other stake holders we are forced to copy. This recently happened on a project I was working on. Our client wanted me to straight up copy a really popular design of our competitor, font-for-font, color-for-color. I felt I had some great original ideas, but I knew the fight wasn’t worth it so I threw in the towel and went for the direct copy.

Since that experience I have come to realize the damage copying another design can do. Picasso said that a bad artist copies and a great artist steals. This phrase has often been used in the design world as well. I don’t think this is true in all cases, I believe great designers are original thinkers who don’t determine a design’s success on its popularity or how it’s received by a mainstream audience.

Great designers have an uncanny ability to ignore everyone and do what is best for the project, they let the design guide them. This kind of originality pushes the rest of us lackies to the next level, hopefully, unless we keep copying from them.

Why it’s bad

You’ll never know why

It’s like cheating on a test. When you cheat on a test you don’t know why the answer is what it is, and chances are you’re not going to take the time to find out, cause if you wanted to know you would have done it in the first place. Copying design or copying answers to an exam are not any different.

The designer you are copying made his or her choices for a reason and you’ll never know that reason. Worst case, the designer you are copying, copied their design. When you copy from someone else you don’t know why they used the design pattern they did or why they used a particular font or even why they used a gradient. This not only hurts the original designer, but it hurts you even more. Next time when you are designing a site, you may not know how to fit in that cool gradient effect or font choice correctly.

Design is subjective and knowing why choices are made is one of the most valuable tools you have. Knowing why a composition is so engaging or why a color scheme works so well is never learned through copying, its learned through criticism, evaluation, experimentation, and testing… but never copying.

You’ll get stuck

If you copy a design you will inevitably get stuck. Getting stuck in a design is like getting lost in a maze. Let’s say you show up at the client design meeting with your copied design to show to the client. They see the design and love it, but like all great clients, they want you to make a handful of changes. When you start working on the revisions you can’t quite figure out how to make the new changes feel like they belong. Its not so easy to make changes to an already finished product when you have no idea where to begin. You’re stuck in the middle of the maze and you don’t even know how you got in. I know this feeling well, I’ve been there a few times.

When you create designs based upon your own ideas you why the design works or doesn’t work. You know the genesis of the concept and you know where and how the concept can be altered without losing its appeal. When you own the design, you own the map to the maze, you know where you are at no matter where you are. By owning the design you have the knowledge to better discuss the clients revisions right there in the initial design meeting.

You’ll homogenize everyone else

This happens in the music industry every few years. One great example is the mighty grunge era of the early 1990’s. You can debate all day who was the first real ‘grunge’ band, but Nirvana was by the far the trend maker. After Cobain’s music became so popular you had this onslaught of other bands from the Seattle area that looked and sounded very similar. By the time Cobain had killed himself in 1994, grunge music was no more original than it was good. The copy cat bands of the day had taken every original lyric and chord out of the grunge movement. Copy cat design creates the same effect. If a particular look or design element becomes trendy, no matter how innovative, pretty soon all the websites that copy it will eventually blend together.

Take the Web 2.0 movement as a case study. The real substance of the Web 2.0 movement was about dynamic sites, user-centered design and open communities. But what do we all remember about Web 2.0?  Rounded corners. Why did this design element become so ingrained in our minds? Because it was popular. Rounded corners were innovative at the time and so designers started adding this new design element to their websites. Then one day, all the websites looked the same and no particular website stood out. Now, every time we see a rounded corner we think “Ugh, Web 2.0. Blech!”

You’ll devalue yourself, me, and the rest of the community

If I spend thirty hours in Photoshop designing a mockup that looks identical to iTunes for a new web app project, wouldn’t it just be easier for me to screen shot iTunes and send it over to the developer? When you copy, this is actually what you are doing. Do yourself and everybody at the company a favor and take a screen shot, it saves them a lot of design time and you can get back to what you do best, playing Angry Birds. When we copy designs we are essentially devaluing the craft. At some point, someone is going to question why they have designers if all they do is waste time copying. A lot of managers and clients already think design is over rated but when you copy it just proves them right.

This can be hard if you work for a company that doesn’t understand the relevance of design. They may want you to copy everybody else. If that’s the case my suggestion would be to run, run fast and never look back. You don’t need to spend your time as a designer copying others, there are plenty of other companies that appreciate original thought and design.

You’ll devalue the product

Most importantly, when you copy designs, you devalue your site. The real value of any powerful site or app is its originality. Copy cat design only cheapens the site, it makes the site feel dirty on some level. Its like when you take an hour picking out a rad shirt to wear to a concert and your friend shows up in the same shirt, now the shirt doesn’t mean anything. Okay, bad example, but you get the point. When your site looks identical to other sites, it has lost its power. The value of Amazon.com is its originality. They are the web’s marketplace leader because they continually want to be better and more innovative than the others.

Original sites work because they are original, they are designed for and around their own ideas. Sites that are truly created mean more, not only to you but the user. They have deeper value, they have meaning and they have a life of their own. Copied designs are just that, copies, they are meaningless representations of other ideas and concepts. When a design is copied, you not only copy the good elements you copy the weak elements.

Share, don’t steal


The web design community is such a great source for sharing ideas. That is the greatest part of the interwebs, designers can share ideas, concepts, patterns, elements and graphics in a very open environment. Copying breaks down these open channels and forces designers to blockade their ideas. Lets keep these channels open and respect the designs of others so that we can continue to steal inspiration from them.

Related Articles:

http://www.useit.com/alertbox/copy-big-sites.html

http://articles.sitepoint.com/article/copy-great-designers-steal

http://52weeksofux.com/post/1014189735/copycat-design

Jack Black on Piracy

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Patrick is a UX Designer and Researcher at Instructure (Canvas LMS).. He also enjoys family, snowboarding, sports, bacon and is jealous of your beard.

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Website: http://patrick-cox.com

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