Inspiration vs. Theft: The Thin Gray Line
Published on September 29, 1999
Inspiration does not come easy for most, and that includes some of the world's top designers and creative directors. Everyone has experienced what we call "designer's cramp" (a designer's version of "writer's block") at some time or another. There have been numerous articles about the problem and a ton of suggestions. Some of them work, but many fail miserably. Lance Arthur recently wrote an article in A List Apart called "Creative Notions," which is one of the best I've seen in a long time about the sketchy subject. Coincidentally, Lance is perhaps one of the most widely known designers on the web today, and therefore suffers from a great deal of plagiarism. When asked about this, he says, "A dubious distinction, surely. I think having a somewhat higher profile than other personal sites contributes to my reign under this title."1 Why is that? I believe because he is a creative person whose designs are original and inspirational. However, as long as web browsers come with the "view source" button, plagiarism will always be a problem for people like Lance. The madness does not end there, however. It goes much deeper than most people tend to realize--straight to the root of original art, design, and concepts.
Inspiration around Us
Creative works all come from some form of inspiration. "All of it that you see has design within,"2 as Augi Garred mentions in MindShift. That inspiration could be from a painting, a print ad, a television commercial, a shoe design, a building's architecture or even a song. Inspiration is everywhere, and it's on the web too. Most web designers are inspired by a combination of the music they listen to and the sites they visit. A thin gray line is drawn on the battlefield of inspiration versus theft--a line which is crossed every day, on and off the net. When does inspiration through other designer's works become theft? In other-words, where is the thin gray line drawn? Well, no one can say for sure, and I'm not a lawyer, but my best guess is that at the point in the design process when your need to be creative, and the process of becoming so is crossed with a lack of originality.
Original works have a unique feel about them, something that is similar to a signature style for a designer. Take for example, Jeffrey Zeldman's (creative director for A List Apart) choice of colors and classic imagery or Mschmidt's (co-designer of K10k) tiny unaliased fonts and boxes. Consider Brad Johnson's style of storytelling or Daniel Jenett's use of motion and sound. Go beyond web design and look into art, look at Dali's melting clocks and wooden crutches, Leonardo da Vinci's attention to depth and details. The list goes on and on, but the concept is still the same; each designer and artist has a uniqueness to their work, something no one else can effectively mimic. There are those who plagiarize, only to fail in the long run, and there are those who become inspired and venture down their own paths, with that extra push of inspiration needed to create an original work of their own.
The Web's Not so Big
Mschmidt could name dozens of cases where someone literally ripped out his graphics and HTML and pasted it all into their own site, only to take credit for it themselves. On the issue, Mschmidt says, "I've seen a lot of sites & designs that were very heavily 'inspired' by these people. But being inspired by, and stealing from, are two very different concepts."3 He's right--stealing web design or any other kind of design is only justifying the lack of creativity in the designer--its theft, plain and simple. One thing some people don't understand is how small the net really is. There is a theory that everyone is connected to each other through, at most, six points of contact. Think about it for a second, even research it, and you'll find enough evidence to assume the theory is correct. When someone puts up a web site that's 'created' from stolen designs pasted together, do they actually think no one will notice? They should think again. Design theft is likely the worst crime a web designer can commit. The resulting impact on his or her reputation is critical, and their survival rate is minimal.
In the words of Francis Chan, "Think different. Go wild. Create. Don't emulate."4 For any designer, these are words to live by. It is hard to browse the web and not stumble upon an overused style, perhaps one that was ripped off from some unknown designer years ago. The web is bloated with fads in design, things that will mark sites as aged or as trend followers. Things like the forbidden drop-shadows and bevels are only now being replaced by other fads, such as excessive interlacing, and the much-abused dirty-grunge look. Sound familiar? Wonderful--as designers, we need to stop using them and start thinking for ourselves. As a good friend of mine once said, "Everything in a design should relate or have purpose."5 That designer had a reason to use that style of design, those fonts and that color. It all fits into a theme or an underlying meaning for the site. Nearly all sites are different, as designers have different goals. Taking the work of other designers and modifying it for one's own site is ineffective and unethical. Web designers must think original, as Juxt did, and build an individual identity based upon their own exclusive style. The degree in which we gauge that is defined by the thin gray line.
Nick Finck is a 13-year veteran of the web and considered a web craftsman by trade. His skills traverse web design, web development, user research, web analysis, information architecture, and web publishing. Nick founded his first web consultancy in 1994 in Portland, Oregon, and has since created web experiences for various Fortune 50 and 500 companies including Adobe, Boeing, Blue Cross / Blue Shield, Cisco, CitiGroup, FDIC, HP, IBM, Microsoft, PBS, Peet’s Coffee, and others. He currently resides in Seattle, Washington and is a co-founder of Blue Flavor, a web strategy company that focuses on people-centric solutions. More information about Nick can be found on his web site, NickFinck.com.