What to do when a client wants you to copy other designs ?

In the graphic and web design industry, we like to think of ourselves as “creatives” who constantly keep the creative juices flowing and come up with original, well-thought out ideas. So why is it that even the best of graphic and web designers are approached by a client now and then who says something like:

“I really like the look of this design. Can you just copy it?”

There has been a lot of controversy over the notion that “great designers steal”. Cameron Moll, web guru, speaker, and author wrote an article clear back in 2003 titled “Good Designers Copy, Great Designers Steal“. In it, he adapted Picasso’s statement that Great Artists Steal to modern web and graphic designers. The point of the article is that copying others’ work is a great way to create top-notch material especially for those who are just starting out in design.

Is it okay to copy?

Is it every appropriate to copy the design of another? Yes. Why do I say this? Because, frankly, as designers we are constantly mimicking what we see in the world around us. We peruse the internet searching for “inspiration” and, as we collect this information, our brain remembers the elements we like and those we dislike. The more time we spend with certain styles of design, the more our design starts to imitate it. Is that a good thing?

Of course it is.

The wonderful thing about the online design community is the wonderful ability we have to share ideas quickly and feed off of each others’ creativity. A few opportunities in which I would say copying another design is appropriate are as follows:

When you are trying to master a new technique
Nothing will help you learn a new technique better than really digging deep into how the original designer achieved the effect. By dissecting the design and recreating it yourself, you perfect the process. It’s much like taking apart a vacuum cleaner or toaster oven. The further you get inside, the more you understand the basic principles that govern its success.

When the author intends for you to borrow or copy
There are countless online resources that provide designers with tutorials, code snippets, downloadable source files, free stock photography, and more. In these situations, this material is there for your gain–so really try to take advantage of it as much as possible.

But is it okay to steal?

Let’s face it. Stealing is wrong. Never in the history of the world has it been inherently right to steal. Using another person’s work and claiming direct ownership of it is not ethical and is usually illegal. So what do we do when a client approaches us with the request to “make it look exactly like this”?

The solution

I discussed this same issue early on in my design career with a Guru of Graphic Design. The advice he gave me has stuck with me to this day and has helped me out of some pretty tight situations. He gave me a simple procedure to follow when approached with a request to copy someone else’s design.

FIRST, Commend your client for putting forth the effort in deciding what kind of design they are looking for and what style they like.

SECOND, Explain to your client the laws of copyright and the problems associated with plagiarism.

THIRD, Kindly help your client understand that while you cannot explicitly steal certain elements of the design itself such as actual shapes in logos or images from the internet (without purchase a rights managements), you would be happy to identify the elements and principles of design that you can use to get the same effect.

FOURTH, and this is the most important, sit down with your client and talk with them about why they like the design. Talk less about physical traits and more about principles and emotions. Do they like the color pallet? Do they like the arrangement of elements? Maybe it’s the typography or photography. Possibly they like the amount of white space or the textures. List all the reasons your client likes the design they present to you.

FIFTH, after the meeting, sum up all the points you have made about the design. Their likes, their dislikes, and how you intend to achieve a similar effect without copying the design directly.

SIXTH, After designing the piece according to the specifications at the meeting, review the design with your client and point out the elements that you previously discussed. More than likely, they will love the new design because they now have something just as appealing and beautiful but that belongs completely to them.

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