It’s a provocative statement paraphrased from a quote attributed to Picasso, “Good artists copy, great artists steal,” who may have stolen the quote from T. S Eliot. Eliot makes the argument that mature poets use other people’s works in a transformative manner that contributes something new; he’s not saying that “stealing” is appropriate as a means to an end, but that poets and authors can use other people’s writings as a base for their own work and then transcend that original work.
“The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique and utterly different from that from which it was torn…”
Likewise, no innovative or successful design just happens out of thin air. All creative people, if they are good, observe and absorb others’ ideas that influence their own work. They may imitate the ideas of others, but to be truly great they must transform that idea in a whole new way.
In a college design class we were given the assignment of imitating the work of a famous designer, allowing us to dissect and analyze that work to better understand why it worked. In an advanced photography class we were told to take pictures “in the style of” our favorite photographer to help us better understand their work.
Imitating the masters was also a common practice in Renaissance Europe but no one would say that Michaelangelo’s David (c. 504 C.E.) was just a cheap knock-off of the classical contrapposto statue of Polykleitos’ Doryphoros (c. 440 B.C.E.) with a few minor tweaks.
There are no new ideas, only unique perspectives on old ideas. Writers know that there are only seven stories that have ever been told; their challenge is to write their own version of one of those stories. Visual artists, too, must strive to go beyond imitation, beyond copying, which produces something merely derivative, and actually steal the idea. And by steal I mean that they look at a successful design and take the time to examine the aesthetic, analyze the nuances and intricacies that make the work truly great, and take that information and reinterpret it in their own way. Every creative person builds on that which was done by his or her predecessors. To steal is to collect the pieces, to extract the essence of what makes a work truly great—why those colors, why this technique, why that typeface?—knowing why it works being the goal.
Even Steve Jobs admits in an interview that an innovative company like Apple shamelessly steals great ideas. When you see a great design, don’t imitate it, don’t plagiarize it, steal its essence, add your own perspective and create something truly unique. Albert Einstein said that the secret of creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.
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