UISDC Talk: Reference and Plagiarism!
Designers always can’t get around the topic of copy and reference, only a few elements were borrowed from brilliant works, the original author said it was copy, completely do not know where the boundaries. Some people sneer at reference, while others think reference is the only way to achieve originality. Today, we would like to invite these 7 designers to talk about plagiarism and reference.
In the 6th issue of the UISDC Talk, our topic is — How to use for reference from excellent works correctly? In your opinion, where is the boundary between using for reference and plagiarism? How to draw excellent elements from the works for reference in their own works.
Actually, you can’t run away from references anyway — usually, these are a part of any design brief, whether your own work or 3rd party examples. What I suggest to do after starting the actual work is to hide all the references and start afresh. It’s important to remove them out of sight and to avoid sneak peaking. The references are the starting point but you should make decisions on your own without getting back to those until you make substantial progress. Otherwise, there is a high risk of ’stealing’ shapes, colors, compositions.
This simple rule has saved me more than once!
Design is really hard work! So I understand why so many people copy our work. People see something simple and beautiful and assume it was easy. Simple is hard. Elegant is elusive. The most famous designers have all spent a great deal of time to achieve the simplest results. I struggle every day to make my designs simpler. More organic. More emotional.
Copying and borrowing are a part of any artists development. Everything is a remix! So to borrow from others is a natural part of creating.
As apprentices, I think we copy poorly and find ourselves creating new things. As we grow, we become mimics and improvisers on top of the work of others. I think we find maturity as artists when we are no longer content to look or create just like someone else.
The line is crossed, I think, when you develop the capability to replicate someone’s work (something that is easier all the time in a digital age) and take credit (or worse, sell!) that work as your own.
Say you play a new piano composition. You are playing the composer’s notes, her stylings, everything. You may practice creating this music to perfect your craft. You may even sell your performance of recreating this piece.
But the moment you sell this as your own music, you are a thief!
Once I found guys in a far away country who were selling my work on their work. And they were using my name! Thankfully, they got caught and were fined. But this is rarely the case.
In the end, karma always find us. I believe if we fail to credit our references, it will definitely bring us bad luck.
The border between an homage and a copy is, in the end, really obvious. In a copied design many elements will exactly replicate the reference. But if you were inspired by some design, the elements will be different, customized and personalized. Those who know the original will be able to detect it right away.
We think that seeking inspiration is a natural process for any designer.
There are two potential approaches:
1) Use someones’ design work as a ‘life-drawing’ exercise.
You can pick an interface, an illustration and redraw and replicate it as close to the original result as possible while trying to understand the technique the original designer used to produce it. You will not be able to share this result anywhere though, but you can learn something from it.
2) Break down your reference/example to some basic components.
If we talk about user interfaces, these components could be the color palette, layout, photo content, typography, overall theme (travel, food), style of the pictograms, etc. We think it is ok to use one or a maximum of two components from the reference. For example, you can take a look at the color palette from a food delivery app and potentially apply it in a completely different product. However, make sure it is applicable and meaningful to choose this color palette for this particular product and the audience. You can’t just blindly copy someone’s work. Also, you can find some interesting front combinations in your references, but again make sure you use them consciously.
I think the design industry has developed to the point when nothing is truly original anymore. All we’re doing is to mix up what have been done create something new out of it. And it’s not a bad thing at all because I believe the end goal of design is to solve problems and meet customer’s satisfaction, not to be super original. It’s ok to be influenced by someone’s else works but there should be a boundary between being inspired and copying And that boundary is not the same in different design fields.
Logo / Branding design: the goal of logo design to create something identical that represent your brand, so logo designers have to be very cautious when using references, if you copy others’ work, people would know it immediately.
UX design: this is the only field where you can copy 100% from other’s work without being caught. Because UX is intangible and the value that it brings is not the same. You can copy the whole UX flow from the most popular app in the market, but it doesn’t mean that it would work as well as your competitor did. Because each product has different goals, different users, different strategy,… So no one cares if you stole an UX model from someone else.
Interaction design: same as UX, there are countless app copying Tinder’s swiping interaction and no one has any problem with it, why? Because Interaction designers work on top of common patterns that have been created since computer was born. Their job is not to be original but to find the best we to help user interact with their devices, that’s it. They can copy or create something new, it doesn’t matter as long as it works.
So how to craft to your own thing based on someone else work? Here’s a few things that I personally consider doing before kicking off any project:
- Build a solid moodboard with variety: Instead of getting inspiration from a single reference, collect as many references as you can, One reference doesn’t have to be exactly what you’re looking for, maybe just a small element that you find interesting, that’s enough. Then try to mix of all of the good elements you found and create your own thing.
- Teamwork is the key: one of the problem I usually find when working alone is to try to replicate my favorite design references and disregard if it really works or not. That could easily turn my work into a copycat. That’s why we should really play it as a team, a good team can offer various skills and perspectives that would create a special ingredient that make your design original.
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There’s definitely a big difference between drawing inspiration and blunt copying, using as a reference and plagiarizing. However, sometimes the line between the one and the other gets too fine and that’s where the problems begin.
First, let’s define the terminological difference between the two. In plain English, plagiarism is copying an idea and saying it’s yours while inspiration is coming up with an idea of your own as a result of being mentally stimulated by something or someone.
In terms of design, using a design work as a reference would imply creating an artwork in a similar style, but something that is fundamentally different — a different idea, colors, layout etc. Using the same idea/layout or even colors would be considered plagiarism. A safe ground and, actually, a good idea would be to draw inspiration from different industries instead of from the design of a website. It can be anything from an oil painting to some wacky architecture. Think outside the box to increase your chances of creating something truly cool and original.
The only case where it’s okay to copy is when you’re learning. It’s a good way to hone your skills, but it goes without saying that you can’t present it as your work, let alone use it for commercial purposes. After you’ve learned how to create such design, try to experiment a bit, try to improve it, a good exercise would be to create a different page for the website you liked. That would be the first step to creating something of your own.
It’s true though that the industry itself incorporates some form of plagiarism. And it’s not even about the industry, it’s about the entire world where some always lead and the rest always copy. The world of design is no exception. For example, it’s a common practice for clients to provide references they like. Probably most designers and digital artists have some idols whose works they admire. That’s absolutely okay if instead of copying, you analyze why you like it or find out what exactly it is that the clients like in this website.
Maybe it’s a certain layout, or the color palette, or the feel of warmth it gives. Figuring this out is all you have to do here. Develop this skill and it will be your way to success — the way to creating good authentic works.
Reference is always good! but don’t copy style or elements, try to create your own style and thought. I think that’s pretty good. I always took reference from another artist, that’s only for a detailed study.
How they come to this idea, or how they create, What’s the behind the thought. I always searching for these kind of things. is a detailed study.
A good reference use for a good study, that’s only. after the study, you can go your own thought and style.
“Reference” is to stand on the shoulders of giants to think, with its good concepts and their own ideas for transformation. And “plagiarism” is the direct copy of works and ideas, the process did not contain their thought.
When discussing “plagiarism” and “borrowing”, I think we can add “imitation” to the discussion.
In fact, it took me quite a long time to understand the relationship between “plagiarism”, “imitation” and “reference”.
I remember in the first half of the university education, most courses are on the sketch, watercolor, electric draw lessons related courses, all training is copy works at that time, everyone in the class to grow almost hand over the work, one of the biggest difference is the skill of good or bad, everyone is hard to draw every day, in the class, full full copy picture on the wall. At that time, I once thought that this was the design, as long as I practiced the skills according to the book and then finished the work. Later, I learned that the “imitation” training in that period was the basic training to prepare for good design in the future, not “design”. Therefore, I think it is not “plagiarism” to “imitate” others’ works as a method of skill practice, but it is “plagiarism” if such a pattern is applied to public works.
Then I remind that period of time, because with the original imitation learning, I have a faster understanding of skills, and keep practicing and accumulating a solid foundation of ability to make future creation more efficient. Therefore, I think imitation in the initial stage is necessary, because it can let the beginners focus on the accumulation of basic ability, which is not plagiarism at all.
It takes time to learn and feel from “imitation” to “borrowing”.
With the end of the first two years of basic training in college, there is more and more “design” in the curriculum. At first, I felt very painful, because I wanted to make a work as good as the reference case, but I didn’t have a clue. I spent a lot of time looking for inspiration every time, but I was often too eager to finish my homework. In the past, no matter how complicated the picture was in the basic training course, the work could be completed as long as it was started earlier. But when it comes to “design” class, even if often stayed up all night to collect data for inspiration, but still can’t come up with. Gradually, I found that the practice of looking for “pure idea” didn’t work, and I had to find a way to complete my homework more efficiently. So I gradually learned to use for reference.
My method of reference is to find ten or twenty favorite reference examples before starting to write, analyze and sort them out, then arrange and combine the good reasons and concepts in these works, and then try to use these concepts into my own ideas to test and create. Taking the creation of posters as an example, I will first collect 20 posters which I think are very powerful, and then analyze the good points of each poster, such as the scattered typography, the circle representing “integrity”, the Art Deco style presenting the state of American society in 1920 and so on… After finding these elements, I began to arrange and combine them, and added my own concepts and stories to test the picture. In the process of permutation, combination and trial, there will be more and more sparks, and more and more new ideas and pictures. In this way, the pre-production exploration time can be reduced, and the time can be invested in the post-execution test. “Borrowing” is like thinking on the shoulders of giants. It can shorten the time from 0 to 1 and spend more time on making the work grow from 1 to 100 points.
This method of “borrowing” is one of the ways I sometimes use to enhance efficiency in my creation. Not every work is produced in this way. To complete a work, there are many ways, and everyone has their own habits of the model, but this method must not be “plagiarism”, in this way to complete a work is just hand, and will not progress and growth.
Thanks for the excellent share from these 7 designers, we know more about reference and plagiarism. Each question is a topic of concern for designers. See you next time.