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Inspiration, Not Copying

Inspiration, Not Copying

I admit it. I’ve committed a cardinal designer sin. I’ve straight up, unabashedly, embarrassingly…copied.

Don’t judge me like you haven’t done it in a pinch—okay, maybe you haven’t, but I admit it I have. It’s shameful, especially since I’ve also been the guy who’s called people out on the internet for copying. Ya, I was that guy. Yet, in classic hypocritical fashion, I was probably copying someone else’s style of calling people out. I digress.

Why do we choose to copy things as designers? Why do we secretly risk the potential of being humiliated by (at least) our peers and even at times dance with breaking the law? I’ll tell you: because we’re lazy. Creating something new requires determination, follow through, stick-to-it-iveness, and most importantly, the grit and resolve to carry you through the parts of the process that are just plain agonizing.

Many people look in on the design world and think it’s just a bunch of drawing pictures, pretty colors, Instagram photos, and foosball breaks. But we know better. Design is tough.

Design is tough.
It takes effort, research, time, and constantly learning to stay ahead of the ever-elusive “curve”. Our audiences only see the finished products we produce.
Our audiences only see the finished products we produce. They don’t know what it takes, but they don’t have to – that’s why they hire us.
They don’t know what it takes, but they don’t have to – that’s why they hire us. Designers exist to not just give people what they want, but what they didn’t realize they needed. We’re expected to have that sixth sense.

So with any new design challenge, we’re tempted to copy something that’s already navigated the decision-riddled waters of the creative process. It’s less thinking. There’s no need for discovery. There are no decisions, planning, sketching…it’s just a rip-off of someone else’s success getting to the end of the process.

But often what we forget in that corner-cutting moment, is that no one remembers the copycat.

No one remembers the copycat.
No one’s mind is as blown the second time they watch a movie with a twist at the end. No one thinks you came up with the series title “Modern Family”. You’re not fooling them. They’ve seen your trick before, and whether you/they realize it or not, you’re impact is compromised. Copies aren’t revered, yet we still do it. Show me someone who likes the cover band version of a song better than the original, and I’ll show you someone who I won’t be taking music suggestions from. We’re called to something better than just being a swindling imitator.
We’re called to something better than just being a swindling imitator.

If you’re reading this, there’s a chance you create for something more meaningful than just peddling more french fries and soda. You design for  environments where people can learn more about a loving God. Honestly, it’s the best news they’ll hear their entire life. Do you really want to trust that first visual interaction to a stolen design from designspiration.net? We are called to better.

I dare you to make something that inspires someone.
I dare you to make something that inspires someone. I dare you to set the next trend by bending the current ones. Let’s not be content comparing ourselves to each other, but let’s look to the rest of the design world and hold ourselves to the ever increasing standard of excellence. You might as well since everyone else already is. The things we create can’t just be original, they have to be great, and they have to be appropriate to the context they’ll be used in – and the audience, of course. We want our design to stand out, and we can’t do that with a copy.

Here are a few things I consider with each new design I’m involved with:

Multiple sources of inspiration bring non-copy results, where one source of inspiration leaves you copying.
Copy to learn a technique only. Do not put it in your portfolio.
Learn to embrace the craft and process of making things that are great, don’t just strive to be done.

  • Be inspired, not just from one source, but from many.
  • Multiple sources of inspiration bring non-copy results, where one source of inspiration leaves you copying.
  • Find originality in what is familiar.
  • Curate—constantly seek new ideas and concepts in all mediums of design and art.
  • Study great designs. Pick them apart. Find out what makes something a great design, find additional pieces that carry a similar thread of style, then create something totally new from what you love about each of them.
  • Explore other types of design/art—Look at architecture, sculpture, painting, collage, nose around on Etsy, walk through an IKEA, be inspired by something other than the medium you’ll be creating in.
  • Copy to learn a technique onlyDo not put it in your portfolio, it’s not your idea. This is a valuable way to learn how something is done so you can build on it in your own way. But it’s not creating.
  • Sketch a lot, a whole lot. Then sketch more.
  • Learn to embrace the craft and process of making things that are great, don’t just strive to be done.
  • Be ready to fail. And when you do, have the grit to get up and go for it again.
  • Talent isn’t a gift, it’s earned with a lot of hard work.

Don’t sell yourself short, you can be original, but it takes a lot more effort than copying. Be inspired, don’t steal, don’t copy. I would rather fail trying trying to be original, than eek by through stealing others’ work and copying. Our culture craves originality, we long for it, we often mock copies. You were created as an original, as one of a kind—don’t be content with just making copies.

I dare you to make something no one has ever seen before. Surprise us. Go.

About The Author

Colin Harman

My name is Colin Harman and I am a lifetime learner, designer, creative thinker, and relentless asker of questions. Saved by God’s grace, I have the privilege of being the art director with an amazingly talented team at North Point Ministries. Ampersands are beautiful, second only to my amazing wife.

4 Comments

  1. Ron

    As an artist/designer, I could relate so much to this. Though I started out as a semi-plagiaristic (haha ouch) artist for our church, I realized after a while that ‘copied’ artwork doesn’t convey as much depth or sincerity as an ‘original’ artwork.

    And God’s word/truth is not shallow nor insincere.

    I hope we all can continue to encourage and remind one another to constantly seek our Creator, the source and inspiration of all creativity 😀

    Reply
  2. Pal Gyomai

    Well said Colin. I think many of us have done a little copying of some sort. Question is whether we admit it like you or deny it. Of course the latter makes one a liar. I put in hours of work to design worship backgrounds for my church. Sometimes it’s frustrating when I “feel” what I want the end result to be and it doesn’t seem to realize on my computer screen (perhaps because I didn’t sketch enough). But it’s very satisfying when I create something that I feel will help people enter the worship and God’s presence.
    I get inspiration from music, art and of course when I sincerely seek the face of our Creator.

    Reply
  3. Ryan George

    Thought-provoking. Way to put yourself out there.

    Personally, though, I like when an artist changes the meaning or feel of another musician’s song by reinterpreting it in their cover. That said, I’ve never been a music snob.

    Reply
  4. David Biederbeck

    Thanks Colin! I’ve recently heard a lot of people in the christian design community say that great artists steal. While I understand the sentiment I’m not sure it is a proper place to start from. It’s refreshing to hear creativity encouraged.

    Reply

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