Back when I was a magazine Art Director (in the 90s!), I was fascinated with the great work they were doing at The Face, ARENA, and UK Esquire. So much so that I consciously aped the design styles of these publications in the work that I was doing. I wasn’t copying designs, so much as biting their style.
Or so I thought.
One day after a magazine I had designed hit the street, another art director with whom I had a friendly rivalry dropped a 3 month old copy of ARENA on my desk and opened it at a particular spread. “You need to get better at stealing,” he said.
My face felt flush and I didn’t know where to look. I had clearly used design elements, layouts and photographic styles from one particular article. I didn’t remember doing it on purpose, I certainly didn’t sit there and design my work with the magazine by my side. But there it was. I still feel hot in the cheeks thinking about it.
These days things are different. We live in a world where everything is a remix, best-selling books tell us to steal like an artist, and well-respected designers like Daniel Mall write step-by-step posts called “Stealing Your Way to Original Designs“.
It’s Dan’s piece I want to talk about today. He’s a lovely guy, and he was nice enough to suggest I write this, which is admirable. Not a lot of people seek opposing opinions so readily.
You should read his piece, because some its advice is very good. But some of it is terrible.
His three point manifesto for design (Imitate, Remix, Invent) is a good framework for getting serviceable executions. I cut my teeth as a young designer doing a version of this, and it’s nice to see it laid out so succinctly. A key design skill is the ability to connect seemingly disconnected ideas, and his approach has the benefit of actually being structured and easy to follow.
If you do it for paid work, it’s also stealing.
Filing the VIN number off a car doesn’t make it yours. Changing the colours and fonts from someone else’s website doesn’t make it yours either.
But this is, in essence the advice that Dan gives. See the following quote:
The artwork goes a long way into making this feel original, but there’s still one more thing we need to do. That notched-out call to action is such a unique piece that it’s become signature to the original source. It still feels like someone could identify the source from that element.
That’s right. We know that stealing is wrong. So wrong that we need to hide it so nobody finds out. But if stealing weren’t wrong why would we care if someone found out?
That’s the failure of this piece, and by extension its framework. You spend so much time being pleased with yourself for finding cool ways of hiding the body, you forget you shouldn’t have killed someone in the first place.
But you don’t need me telling you that stealing is wrong. Dan even says it for me on the bottom of every page on his website:
Design is about meaning, intent, and change. Work with that as your starting point and you won’t spend so much time digging pretty graves.