Good Designers Copy, Great Designers Steal

Sequence from “Mr.Bean”

Pablo Picasso, the first living artist to be featured in the Louvre, influenced the artistic world in a uniquely original way, so why is he known for saying :

“Good artists copy, great artists steal”?

It’s true. Picasso really said, “Good artists copy, great artists steal.” Or at least, since his death in 1973, everyone believes he said that.

But why? Why would someone as original as Picasso say something as ironic as that? And what did he mean? Google Picasso’s quote, and you’ll find plenty of opinions and interpretations as to what he really meant.

My intent here, then, is to uncover one possible interpretation. This interpretation involves three levels of design, each of which:

  • involves some aspect of copying or stealing
  • shows increasing design maturity
  • adapts Picasso’s quote to modern graphic design

Three Levels of Design

To help you understand my reasoning, I’ve segmented this interpretation into three levels. Are these the only three levels of design? Of course not. They’re only a guide to help improve your design maturity as related to copying and stealing.

I’ve included short case studies to effectively demonstrate the primary concept at each level — at least, that’s the intent. You be the judge as to whether or not they’re effective examples.

Copy, Don’t Create

I’m all for being as original as possible, but a beginning Web designer (or any designer, for that matter) should start out by copying other well-created designs.

Surprisingly, there’s a positive side effect to copying: conventionality. Building on the same foundation as other sites — specifically, layout and information architecture — often leads to intuitiveness and familiarity for the end-user. By no mistake do BarnesAndNoble.com and Amazon.com have similar navigation structures.

Additionally, if your career is anything like mine, you hardly ever enjoy the luxury Michelangelo relished as he expended four long years completing the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Often, we have only four months — more likely, four weeks. So, in a commercial art environment such as Web design, copying is almost mandatory, given the time constraints and budget limitations we face.

Steal From Yourself

Simply put, one of the best sources from which you can steal is yourself.

Think about it. You probably have a folder on your hard drive that contains dozens of designs that were never used or completed. You’ve created designs that have been a success with clients. And more importantly, your distinctive design style is probably a selling point for many of your clients.

Why not tap into some of the great work you’ve created that was either unused or never fully completed? Or even better, reinvent some of your work that was highly successful in establishing your personal style.

Steal From Discrete Sources

A good design friend of mine adorns his signature on message board posts with a quote by Albert Einstein:

“The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.”

Perhaps the easiest way to ‘hide’ your sources is simply to use sources that are already hidden.

Picasso implied that great artists don’t get caught stealing because what they appropriate they transform so thoroughly into their own persona, that everyone ends up thinking the great idea was theirs in the first place.

Thanks for reading. Hope this was helpful.

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