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Why the best ideas are rarely original (and how to steal like an artist)

There seems to be an assumption in society that creativity must equal originality, that all good ideas must be new ideas and that creative people wake up in the middle of the night with a spark of genius plucked from a void.

But is this always the case? Is it ever the case? And when it comes to designing digital products, how can we come up with these sparks of genius? Of course there is no silver bullet but one answer may come as a surprise, because it would seem that what are perceived as groundbreaking designs are often anything but original.

Let me start with a story

The Romans were latecomers when it came to waging war at sea, and the rival Carthaginians of the Mediterranean had a naval power that was clearly superior to that of Rome.

But as luck would have it, a Carthaginian ship (quinquireme) ran aground as it tried to blockade the Romans who were crossing to Sicily in borrowed boats.

The Romans were not good at sailing, or building boats for that matter. But once caught, this enemy ship is supposed to have provided the Romans with the prototype they needed to start their own designs. In fact the build of the ship was so structured (numbered pieces) — for the Romans it was almost like putting together a piece of flat-pack furniture. As a result the Romans were easily able to copy and reproduce the warship and set their sights on the seas.

But the story doesn’t end there. War at sea requires far more than simply the tools. The normal method for defeating the enemy involved ramming the enemy ship, which in itself required a great deal of sailing skill and experience from the crew.

The Romans didn’t have these skills.

So they adjusted the design to allow for the battering element to become a bridge. This bridge allowed their troops to quickly gain access to the enemy ship and effectively take part in a hand-to-hand battle on-board (something they were much better at).

The rest as they say is history. With their own version of the design the Romans took their battles to the high seas and went on to dominate the Mediterranean in the same way they dominated the land.

The stories of stealing other people’s design and making them into something new doesn’t stop there. History is littered with more examples and many of the most visionary creatives have been quoted saying that they ‘find the best that is out there’ and make it into something even better.

Pablo Picasso said

“Good artists copy, great artists steal”

More recently, in an interview the late Steve Jobs said

“It comes down to trying to expose yourself to the best things that humans have done — and then try to bring those things in to what you’re doing. We have always been shameless about stealing good ideas”

I work in a Product and Engineering team as a designer, and we have a bunch of principles that we work to. Borrowing ideas from others is one of them.

But how do we borrow in a way that honours the work of the people who have come before? How do we avoid the twitter-storm of criticism that we have just copied someone else’s ideas. How do we avoid falling into the trap of just copying the competition — including the broken parts?

It is no surprise that others have thought about this very topic and in my research I found out about a designer and author, Austin Kleon, who sets out some great rules for ‘stealing like an artist’.

Honor a design — don’t degrade it

Expose yourself to the best things out there, and instead of copying them like for like (likely missing some of the finer details, and thereby degrading the design), deconstruct the design, identifying the pieces that are important for the problem you are trying to solve.

Study a solution to understand why it works — don’t skim it and miss the critical points.

Sometimes it takes some time to understand the ‘why’ behind a successful design. Look for the details. Learn about perception theory. Learn about human bias. Give it time to sink in and understand all the pieces. Try to understand why it works well. If you rush an imitation without understanding the reasons behind the design you are likely to miss the critical points.

Transform — don’t imitate

Take an idea, and make it work for your product. Sense what needs to change for your customers needs, and respond by customising the design to meet those needs.

Remix — don’t rip off

There will always be debate as to whether the original is better, or the remix. And the reality is neither — beauty is in the eye of the beholder. By remixing into something new you are adding to the pool of new ideas, rather than just drawing from it. Try to identify your product’s own individual personality and inject that into the mix — that way you may come up with something new.

Credit — don’t plagiarise

If you are going to take a piece of art or an idea and evolve it, then credit your original sources so that everyone can see the evolution of the idea. Don’t pretend you were the first to have it, and don’t devalue the effort of those who have gone before you by providing no mention.

And of course — and most importantly — if we go out and find ideas from other industries, if we broaden our research beyond digital interfaces — and if we abandon our screens and look for real world inspiration, then we might come up with product ideas that are truly innovative.

If you’re interested in the subject I recommend you look up Austin Kleon, from whom I stole a great deal for this post, and who lots more history and detail in his book—Stealing like an artist.

This post was originally published on Medium.

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