Learning Through Stealing

How to become better at your craft


This is a concept that many of us are already doing intentionally, and some of us might not realize how much the art of stealing plays into our learning process. Main main focuses are design, creative, direction and user experience so i’m going to focus this article on how stealing applies to these. But, I do believe that these higher concepts also apply to other mediums as well.

We want what we create to be unique. And when I say that, I mean original. We want to have the spark that connects us to a unique reality. Something special. But most importantly, we want it to be memorable. This is what makes something great. A brand is designed well if it’s memorable and lasting. This concept goes for other mediums as well — a song that you love to hear, a book that you read, a meal that you enjoyed, an art piece that moved you. Memory gives us meaning. As creators — how do we get to this place of originality, uniqueness, and memorable presence?

We Steal.

That might sound terrible, but if you think about learning from a higher level: we acquire knowledge over the course of our career and then build upon it for our betterment.

“We’re All Imposters (So Be A Good One)” — Erika Hall

Think about it. When we design and build, we are essentially stealing from this collective source — we’re not building something unique from scratch — we are all building our creations upon the shoulders of others.

Does This Make Us Thieves?

Yes. We are all thieves. Practically everything we make is derivative of something. This is not a bad thing — the balance is in how we go about it. I heard someone once say: “Copying is wrong when it is pretending to be original.” Just in case I’m not clear — I’m not telling you to take the New York Times and slap your logo on it…that would be wrong. But what I am saying is, we can look towards others, what already works and is already memorable and then utilize these established concepts.

Blurred Lines

Be careful because sometimes derivations on a concept might not be far enough to be considered original. Like the Robin Thicke / Blurred lines controversy. Their song Blurred lines was similar to Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give it up” — and at one point in an interview they said that they were trying to have a “Marvin Gaye give it up feel” (later denying that). But, because of this, Marvin Gaye’s family was awarded 7.4 million dollars in a settlement. Sometimes when you steal, it can be too close. There’s a certain amount of derivation that is needed in order for it to be considered original.

On the other hand, Jay Z was sued by an Egyptian flute player for sampling his flute in “Big Pimping” and the court threw out the case. Even though we’re riding this fine line of appropriation, our end goal here is to learn.

Becoming a thief is opening up yourself to learning from others with the goal to build upon established information and then push the boundaries of creativity, technology, and innovation. Stealing is an incredible way to learn and grow. We all do it even if we don’t know it.

Steps to Becoming a Thief/Better at your craft:

1. Dissect Established Brands and Designs

This is a very research heavy part of the art of stealing. Start by looking up some of the established designers, agency portfolios, find their latest work and see what they are doing. Look through industry verticals and note styles and trends that overlap companies.

Logodesignlove.com has an incredible list of links to different brand style guides from major companies. It even includes the US Web Design Standards — a guide to create consistency in interface across the federal government. It’s a super nice style guide, laying out all the elements of their design and their use cases. Design has so much to do with systems and logic. Just perusing other company’s style guides, we can learn so much.

Utilize tools in your dissection process such as the whatfont chrome extension. It is a great tool to help figure out what font is on a page. It will assist you in gathering all kinds of type information for you to steal later.

Compile

After we’ve done a ton of research, we’re going to compile it all into a visual bank and get crazy organized to help our brain. Make lists, make collections, take notes. If you look at these brands and write down in words what makes it successful, you might find something powerful or trends you never thought existed. Think about font and color combinations, spacing, functionality, tone, and user experience.

Ask yourself “this design is successful because..”

People compile in many different ways. Some use Pinterest to help organize what they’re learning about. They create boards and compile all their found research. You really can find a lot of cool stuff by looking through what other people have collected. Stealing others research? So meta.

Another cool tool is Invision. They have a great board feature that lets you easily create mood boards and collections that might inform a design that you’re working on.

Style Tile

A style tile is a board that you might show your client ahead of time as a compilation of information and designs that are going to inspire the design and functionality of the project. Style tiles are great way to get on the same page with your client. If the client does not jive with the tile you’ve created, you know that you might need to go another direction.

Compiled Design Inspiration

There are a ton of inspiration websites out there. I’m just going to mention one in this post: lovelyui.com. They are one of my favorites just based upon how they separate out designs by element and trend. They have a “ghost buttons” section where they’re showcasing the use of that trendy thin outline white button. (you know what I’m talking about!)

This research phase we’ve been talking about is all about exploring and compiling. Do it continuously because trends come and go. You want to continue to inform yourself of what’s out there. When we do this, we develop what is called Design Intelligence.

Design Intelligence

Design Intelligence is is the foundation and the groundwork for stealing and making something your own. Even if you’re a developer, I encourage you to look around and start to craft your own design intelligence. It will help you have a deeper understanding of what you’re building.

2. Copy What You Love

In developing design intelligence, we’ve been overloaded ourselves with so much rich information. So many ideas, executions, concepts, layouts, button styles, etc. We’re overwhelmed by it all. To make sense of it all, pick out what you love, what struck you, and copy it.

But what I really mean is to copy what actually works. Because you’ll find that with the development of your design intelligence, what you love about a design, is really the part of it that works.

Good artists copy, great artists steal. — Pablo Picasso

Learned Behaviors

There are a lot of things that we should definitely steal and one of these is learned behaviors. These are behaviors, in respect to how we interact with machines, that we have collectively learned.

Certain Microinteractions are learned behaviors. Microinteractions are single product moments that have one main task. The task could be pull-to-refresh, double tap to like on Instagram, or the little dots that show you that someone is typing in iMessage. These are all microinteractions. Steal them!

We’re slowly, collectively developing a microinteraction vocabulary especially with the introduction of swipes and gestures on mobile.

It is important to try to utilize any already known behaviors before pushing the limit with your own new concepts.

3. Adapt and Improve

This is the key secret. We want to build upon the foundation that we’ve been given. All the research, all the stealing — We want what we build to become original and memorable.

The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources. — Albert Einstein

I love this. This quote might sound sneaky at first, but if you think about it, it makes complete sense. If we want a design to be unique, original, and memorable, we use other sources as the backbone to expound upon what we’ve built. In the end, we’re hiding the obvious in plain sight. This is key to innovation.

Material Design

Material design is a great example of stealing a concept and then adapting it to be something new. Material Design is a design language developed by Google that has a focus on hierarchy and motion. Google took the principles of flat design and gave it a reality to sit in through dimension and shadow. These improvements made flat design more human.

If you’re a designer, you might remember (or even use) the long shadow trend. This design trend popped up as as response to the flat movement. The flat trend got so flat, the collective response called for dimension. People started giving long shadows to everything. It started to get out of hand.

Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. — TS Elliot

Next thing you know everything was getting a long shadow. And then the shadows got longer and longer. Luckily this trend did not keep going because Material Design came to the rescue and tamed the shadows. It gave us the dimension and root in reality and humanity that we were craving with flat design.

What’s a great thing about Material Design? Google actually encourages you to steal it.

4. Collaborate

Up until now, we’ve been discussing pushing our creative limits, stealing and imitating, but we have yet to discuss the role of collaboration. Collaboration is the next big step.

Share your designs, be honest, work together to make something better. You can purchase designs from other designers in places like Creative Market. This can help save you time and push the limits of your work. It is smart to purchase an incredible icon set instead of building your own from scratch if the set is perfect for your project. Feedback, collaboration, and constructive criticism of your work is key to pushing innovation.

Open Source

Open Source is really what is near and dear to my heart. Share with others! This makes our industry thrive! Make an icon set and put it up for free download on dribbble. Get on github and put up your front end code and share your microinteractions. Just think for a second how many resources you’ve utilized in your career that have been free and think about how you can give back as well.

To Recap: Dissect established brands, copy what works, adapt and improve, then collaborate. This is the key to becoming better at your craft: learning from stealing.

Let’s be thieves together.