I started copying at a very young age.
Not only did I spend hours watching and re-watching Disney movies, I spent a lot of time drawing and re-drawing the characters. Not in any imaginative way, mind you. Just straight up copying the box art. I would grab a big puffy plastic VHS case, prop it up, and draw it exactly. The problem was that I wanted to draw but I didn’t know what to draw or where to start (aka: not that creative of a child), so I copied. After awhile, I got good at it and I started being able to draw people and furniture and things that I made up. Copying was the little catalyst that started what would be my creative career.
Disclaimer: Good Copying vs. Bad Copying
Especially in the creative fields, copying gets a bad rap. When I talk about copying I’m talking about copying for learning, not for showing or selling. Good copying is copying to learn something, whether it be a new skill or just an understanding of a medium, artist, or form. Bad copying is copying and then passing it off as your own. Like when my baby sister would copy all my hiding spots when we had friends over to play. Not cool, not flattering, and no way to win hide and seek.
Copying my way to a new career
Much to my father’s dismay, I went to school for interior design. Much to his extra dismay, I realized I picked wrong and did nothing with that degree — although I did get a very solid foundation in design and an accompanying love for it. I considered going back to school, but accumulating more student debt was quite unsavory to me (and dad), so I decided to see what I could do on my own. I tried a lot of things: followed tutorials, read books, and bought a lot of Skillshare classes and other online courses, too.
While I learned a lot this way, some of my very best learning was done by resorting to my old copying ways.
I think where I fell flat on courses and tutorials was that I was just following along. Every step was correct and I didn’t have to struggle through to get to the end. I’d finish up a course or tutorial and think, “Ok, what do I do now?” I didn’t know how to ask questions because I didn’t really know what questions to ask. Even though it was interactive, it felt passive and I don’t think I learned as much or as well as I could have. Copying on the other hand, makes me feel much more actively engaged. It gives me a goal but doesn’t tell me how to get there. What I really love about copying is it helps form the questions needed to figure out the answer.
3 (big) things I learned by copying
While I have Pocahontas and The Little Mermaid to thank for my beginner drawing skills, I didn’t really count the legitimacy of how I got them until I got to art school. Every drawing and design class had us copying something at one point or another. In one of my favorite drawing classes some of our assignments were to copy various masterpieces in different mediums (ink, charcoal, and once, coffee). Sometimes as an exercise he would turn a piece upside down and cover all but a small square and have us copy it bit by bit until the full piece was completed. It taught me how to really look at something and break it down and to experiment with new mediums — skills I use everyday.
The Pen Tool (and Illustrator in general)
Perhaps the only thing that has made me as frustrated as CSS is the stupid, awful, wonderful pen tool in Adobe Illustrator. I knew that if I wanted to be a visual designer, I’d have to learn how to use Illustrator — and the pen tool in particular. I did a bunch of tutorials on how to use it, but I only got really good at it when I gave up and just started tracing cars, boats, and trains. Not really sure why I stuck with a transportation theme, but it worked and now I’m pretty quick and comfortable with it. As for the rest of Illustrator, I would copy logos and icons to figure out how they got their different effects.
As we’ve discussed earlier, I’m pretty uncreative at first blush. Learning to code was really hard because I didn’t know what to code or what was even possible. My advice to any code newbie just starting out is to copy a site they really like and try to make it pixel perfect.
When I copy, I’m always solving for the same problem: I don’t know what I don’t know.
When I give myself the task of “Build a page so it exactly looks and feels like this one,” I now know what I don’t know! The conversation in my head goes a little like this:
“Hmm. That nav bar has a gradient. I need to make a gradient. Oh, it’s not an image. How’d they do that? Huh, with CSS… CSS can do that?!” And the Googling and coding (and learning) commence.
But I didn’t go to school for it
Copying is a very valid form of learning. You’ve been copying for your entire life. It’s how babies learn to talk. It’s how you learned to tie your shoes. It’s how my little sister learned to be cool (by copying me, obviously). There’s no shame in copying to learn, but most importantly, the skills you gain from it are valuable and real.
That being said, you have to know when you’ve hit your copying ceiling. When I copied websites and learned how to code I was really hung up on not knowing the “real” way to code. I was so sure I was doing everything wrong and that I was just using the equivalent of cardboard and duct tape to make my websites. I decided that I needed to learn in a classroom again and took a programming bootcamp.
I needed college to get myself a solid understanding of design and its principles, but copying has played a huge role in getting me where I am today as a full stack product designer. Copying to learn is an awesome way to continue adding to your skillset and developing the skills you already have.
Just don’t be an annoying little sister (or plagiarist) about it and try and pass it off as your own.
Jenn is a product designer @pivotallabs in NYC who owns way too many Sharpies and drinks way too many Schweppes. Also, she writes about product design every Wednesday.