How Copying Was Good For My Design Career

Jenn Dodd
Jenn Dodd
Sep 9, 2015 · 5 min read

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

Copying my way to a new career

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

Drawing

The Pen Tool (and Illustrator in general)

Code

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

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.

Fast forward 3 months later and I learned a bunch of things. Primarily that I’m old and I can’t do all nighters anymore, but there were plenty of other things, too. I learned to read documentation and I learned how to build an app from databases to fancy Javascript animations. But I also learned that copying actually gave me a really decent front end development skill set.

I didn’t always have the correct vocabulary, I did some things the hard way, my files weren’t the most structured, and sometimes (ok, many times) my JavaScript was just barely acceptable, but I was nowhere near the hack I thought I was. Copying worked.

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.

Jenn Dodd

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Jenn Dodd

Product designer. Manager. Coach. Maker. Seltzer Enthusiast. jenndodd.com