Have you ever noticed when you haven’t used a word in a while, or if it’s the first time you’ve heard somebody saying it, all of a sudden you see that word being used everywhere? Or like when you buy a new car and right afterward, it seems as if everyone else had the same idea and bought the same model.
For those of us who follow design very closely, we notice when trends start, when they die, and most importantly, when designers overuse them. But unlike words or cars, overuse of design trends can have a very serious impact on the industry. There is even a point where, even if you are an experienced and very creative designer, if you adapt those trends to your work, you may be seen as someone who is just copying an existing idea with no innovation whatsoever. You could argue that imitation is the best form of flattery, but it could also imply that said imitation is being done just because that idea or style has proven to be successful in the past. But why shouldn’t it be copied? Well, there is a big difference between copying an idea and stealing one. And I’m almost certain you might think I’ll say that stealing is even worse than copying. You would be wrong. When something is being copied, there is limited or almost no understanding of the meaning and the purpose behind the original piece. A copycat will take the idea, and apply it to anything that they might possibly think of, even if the end result doesn’t make any sense. But a thief will understand why the original idea was conceived in the first place and will study all of its elements to analyze and adapt them. This is because a thief takes pride in their work.
Of course, I’m talking about a very different concept of the word stealing than we are all used to. I am not saying that as a designer, you should go out and steal ideas from other designers. What I’m saying is that you should go out and “steal” ideas from other designers. Let me explain. When I talk about stealing, I am referring to studying, analyzing, and adapting the elements behind a successful idea. Borrowing a concept from someone else and making it your own. Those are the key words here: “your own”. There is an essence to every design that can be applied to any form of art. Your creation should reflect that essence without crafting a copy of the referenced work. This is a huge problem in the shirt designing community, where concepts are being copied and not stolen. It is common to see original ideas being copied left and right but the essence is left out, resulting in mediocre copies of a good concept. What is worse is that eventually it becomes an infamous trend used to shoehorn designs that are poorly thought out.
Some of the more recent case of this are the parodies created with the The North Face logo. I sincerely don’t know how it all started, but I am pretty sure that the first person that created a design using this company’s logo as a base had a powerful and successful design on their hands. The problem is that many designers see this success and try to copy the concept, expecting the same result. But as I stated before, they are just copying and not stealing. They forget about the essence behind the concept that will probably answer the question “Why was this successful in the first place?”
There is a great book titled “Steal Like an Artist” by Austin Kleon, where it shows you how to “steal” ideas and create your own concepts. You need to be smart when it comes to using other people’s work as a reference. You just need to figure out how to apply the essence behind a great idea to create something completely new. And that, in my opinion, is the basic foundation of design.