TLDR; Consider short term vs long term investment in design.
The Art of Copying
Copying is truly an art, a craft, requiring a substantial amount of knowledge, effort, and risk. For a digital designer, you can look up almost anything on the web and there are great odds that it’s free of copyright. So, you take it. You download the icon, do an image trace in Illustrator, and say you did the work. You hop on Dribbble and see everyone’s unrealistic concepts of floating white cards on fluid gradient backgrounds and decide to recreate the elements for you own because “why not?” ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Investment in Competitor’s Ideas
The simplest investment strategies are one of two things: short or long. A short investment strategy is maximizing risk for reward. The stakes are put in volatile investments with the expectation that the reward will be great. Investopedia summarizes a common mistake in short-term investment well:
Too often, investors get caught up in the moment and believe that if they watch the evening news and read the financial pages they will be on top of what’s happening in the markets.
The same is true for design. Let’s try it again:
Too often, [designers] get caught up in the moment and believe that if they watch [other companies] and [follow designers on Dribbble] they will be on top of what’s happening in the markets.
Looking at what other people and companies are doing doesn’t justify copying what they are doing. Don’t get me wrong: I think it’s critical to look at others on a measuring stick for research purposes. But it is just as critical to understand the context and impact of their product and design decisions so you can make educated decisions for your product or service that will maximize usability (and profitability!).
Investing in Design
The first step to turning any idea into reality is research. You have to look at who else is doing what you’re doing (or something similar) and figure out why your idea is better. What advantages does your service offer consumers over the competition? What is it about your product that consumers should consider compelling over a similar product? Quality research should lead to an understanding of the market—helping define the target audience—and be a reference for key decisions. Research as many competitors as you can. Toss in related products and services and the occasional “oooh I like that” to mix things up and help set yourself apart from the competition.
The next step is to summon the team together and analyze the research together. There may be a lot of overlap—and that’s okay. Everyone should still come with a unique find, and no person’s finding should be considered “less than” another’s. By rummaging through the data together, the team should be able to tune the compass to better steer the product in the right direction. It is critical that everyone be on the same page as much as possible. This doesn’t mean everyone has to agree or like it, but being on the same page gets you ready for the next step.
Now. Test test test. Get people to wireframe, mock up, and prototype as quickly and often as possible. Send out surveys. Ask questions. For a list of methodologies, I couldn’t recommend Universal Methods of Design more (there’s even a pocket bible version now!).
At What Cost?
I won’t spend a lot of time here. In fact, let me just say this: I worked for a company where hiring one designer saved them a $400 million dollar contract in less than 6 months. The designer costs, what…$85k a year? So $40,000 yielded a 10,000% return. In my shortish life, I’ve personally never heard of another role that’s achieved such a feat.
P.S. This was a half though that started months ago when I was working at Fossil. Not sure why. Was just sitting at my desk thinking about it one day. Forgive any teenage angst or sass expressed in this post. There’s probably a lot more like it to come 😬