All designers start out as imitators (and that’s okay). by John Robinson | October, 2022

A young girl imitating robot movements
Pavel Daniluk. photo by

aWill the creative effort come with a learning curve. And just as it aids in our development as humans, imitation has long been an important learning strategy for designers who seek to develop and mature their craft from understanding to execution.

Even Aristotle observed that from childhood it was human nature; To learn new things quickly by observing others and things around you. Today, psychologists refer to this as “exemplary learning.” It plays an essential role in our cultural, social and emotional development.

For designers, the practice of copying:

  • plays a positive role in developing a fundamental understanding of design,
  • Helps us to improve our visual perception skills,
  • And it helps us bridge the gap between taste and execution through analysis and practice.

Whenever you are faced with a solution to a problem, you need to know that you are not alone. Someone else has probably encountered the same—or similar—problem. and you need want to To know how he dealt with it.

There’s no need to look at every design problem in a vacuum when you can learn from how other people solve similar problems. The process of analyzing someone else’s work by asking yourself, “What was this person trying to do?” Will only make it easier for you to answer: “What am I trying to do?”

Also, we are more prone to imitate what we consider successful. So trying on other people’s forms, styles, and processes is a great way to tackle the learning curve. It is likely the closest thing we have to the master-apprentice model that dominated most learned professions before the birth of design.

When I was a kid, I wanted to draw well. But drawing a skillful hand is a challenging exercise for most children. So my mom would buy me tracing paper, and I would copy artwork from comics or coloring books line for line. I didn’t technically draw it, but it was an original piece of artwork in my young mind, although everyone (including me) knew it was just a copy.

And anyone who can relate to this exercise should know: no matter how much you value those copies, eventually, you have to move past the copying stage.

You know what you like, but have you ever stopped to wonder? Why? Do you like that, It’s a big part of raising your skills to the level of your taste: moving beyond recognition of successful work and really analysis This.

So what better way to know that someone has copied something (besides asking them, that is) than by making a copy.

How many times have you visited an art museum and seen someone with an easel in front of a painting, copying it to perfectly match the artist’s style?

Copying the work of masters is an essential tenet of both Western and Eastern art theory. Hell, if it was good enough for Van Gogh, it’s probably good enough for you.

Even writers learn by dissecting the styles of other writers; Writers praise him for finding his own voice, reading a novel before writing in his own language, and reading it again.

Why should this be less true for designers?

By practicing active observation skills, you become more sensitive to what works and what doesn’t. And an understanding of how to use simple structural things in your designs—layout ideas, typeface combinations, and so on—that you’ve seen work over and over can lead to instant improvements in your work and help create your personal visual language. can be found.

This especially comes in handy when you’re developing these skills without access to university design programs or other instructor-led courses.

Just don’t forget that you are copying to learn, so be very careful where you share that mock work. Most likely it will not be a good fit for your portfolio, Remember, the goal of this exercise is to influence future, original work. Not to spend the rest of your life in an easel copying the styles of others.

When I was a design student, I wanted to be a digital illustrator for a time. To build those skills, I went back to that primary strategy of my youth with tracing paper. I spent hours tracing the artwork on my second generation iMac, which I admired. I’ll scan in specific pages or frames that I like, and I’ll copy them stroke for stroke, color for color in Adobe Illustrator.

When I thought I really understood what the artist was doing, I knew it was time to move on. My style should have been more than just a copy of him.

A decade ago, type designer Eric Speakerman was interviewed by for an article entitled “Putting Back the Face in Typeface”. During that interview, he shared his approach to designing typefaces inspired by another – a common practice in typeface design – as an exercise in “adding sound” to letterform.

On “adding sound,” Spikerman says, “a tune is a tune. But whether you play the tune on the banjo, or the piano… it sounds different.”

He said, “If I find something I really like, I look at it for a long time. I draw it, and I sketch over it. And then I put it away. The next day I I sit down, and I pull it from memory.”

The result will inevitably be different. The new typeface will be influenced by the original, but not by the copy. Speckman developed this method through years of practice, trying to understand what worked and what didn’t throughout the history of type design.

First copying to prepare, and then disassembling to execute.

Things like diversity, variety and experimentation are an essential part of your education. So don’t just look to the same old sources for opportunities to copy, analyze, and remix.

I’m not saying that whatever you make should be completely different from the last. As a designer, it’s important not to develop a visual style of your own, as each solution – and each client – deserves an individual approach.

So be inconsistent with the sources you draw inspiration from. Be inconsistent in the way you copy things. Work towards finding inspiration and making it your own.

The process is the journey, as they say.

Find solace in the unfamiliar and push yourself to keep learning. The more diverse your inspirations, the less one source will dominate your future creative choices.

In the 1980s, Barbara Kruger developed a visual style of tightly cropped black-and-white images with short, declarative words. Phrases like “I shop, therefore I am” in white Futura bold oblique on red rectangle.

The result was art – made to look like advertisements – questioning the relationship between consumption and identity. Her style was special, born of a previous birth in advertising; The industry against which she was reacting (at the time).

For many, the name Barbara Kruger was synonymous with the Futura bold oblique on the red rectangle, until Shepard Fairey hit the streets in the ’90s with his Oboe Giant experiment. While the latter venture proved to be more enduring than the former, Shepherd Fairy eventually diversified and found a way to develop that style into a modern empire that flows like wine from the water and continues to be a part of the world of art and design. The middle comes back again.

There is no argument that his early work imitated Kruger, as long as he did not break away from his templated representations of language and image.

When I created my oboe logo, it was 100 percent a tribute to the work of Barbara Kruger and 0 percent had nothing to do with Supreme. —Shepard Fairy

The Kruger/Fairy connection shows us that there is a fine line between imitation (or coincidence) and plagiarism.

Copying someone else’s work and passing it on to your own – in the design world – is not the waters you want to test. Too many times I’ve seen people try to do things I knew weren’t theirs, and a quick Google search often reassured my skepticism.

He’s just stealing.

Your goal is to find space among all the things you research. Experiment and check the interval. Keep doing it until the job becomes your own, or you’re able to put a spin on the motivation that takes it in a new direction.

Like Shepard Fairey, treat imitation as an exercise in finding your voice. Or your way of adding sound, Eric Speakerman. And, once you find it, maybe someone will imitate you one day.

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