A few weeks ago the Candeo Creative Art Department and I attended an American Marketing Association lecture at St. Norbert College called “Irresistible Images.” Fr. James Neilson, O. Praem., who teaches at the college, spoke about various artists and designers who combined work from other artists with their own personal experiences to create amazing and unexpected concepts like The Accessible Icon Project and this Assless Bike. It really got me thinking about the fine line between plagiarism and modifying design that inspires you.
When I was a design student at UW-Stout, it was made clear to me in nearly every subject the seriousness of plagiarism. This is important, especially while learning the fundamentals of design, because copying others hinders the creative process of getting to your own destination and shows a lack of integrity. However, if you want to be great, you must learn from the great. We replicated styles of successful artists by doing exercises like capturing the light and color palette of a historical painting in a short film or illustrating sophisticated ideas in only a few strokes like these minimalist movie posters. We copied and soaked in as much knowledge as we could, yet still struggled with the pressure of being absolutely original in our art.
For a semester I studied abroad in New Zealand and while I was there I attended the 2012 Semi-Permanent design conference. One speaker that particularly stands out to me now is designer Alex Trochut. He spoke about artists and designers who influence him, as well as his design process and how he incorporates pre-existing concepts and styles into his work.
“I don’t mind plagiarism,” he said. “I just mind stupidity.”
What? Did he just say that?
He goes on to say that nothing is original. It’s fine if you imitate others, just don’t be stupid about it.
“It’s not where you take things from,” he said. “It’s where you take things to. We have so much to offer to the world because the world offers so much to us.”
He then reminded us of a quote from Henry Ford: “To teach that a comparatively few men are responsible for the greatest forward steps of mankind is the worst sort of nonsense.”
Earlier this year, I stumbled upon writer/artist Austin Kleon, and he has a very similar view: “All creative work builds on what came before.”
His book Steal Like an Artist is about embracing the inevitability of influence. But before you read that I highly recommend his 11 minute Ted Talk instead. Here he discusses how humans are collectors and artists collect ideas they love which later come out in their work. He specifically refers to his Newspaper Blackout Poetry which, according to critics, was not an original concept. This led him to researching the origins of blackout poetry. “Not only was my idea completely unoriginal, it turns out there was a 250-year-old history of finding poetry in the newspaper,” he said.
OK, hold on, so plagiarism is bad but stealing isn’t? In his Ted Talk, Austin Kleon goes on to explain the key to creative theft. Imitation is not flattery, but transformation is flattery. Don’t copy an idea or deface it. Take ideas and make something new; make something different. Combine them with your personal experiences. This sounds familiar to what Alex Trochut said: “It’s not where you take things from, it’s where you take things to.”
How exciting to design something that future designers find great enough to reference in their work!
And, yep, this blog post is yet another example of creative theft: I’ve taken my experiences and other designers’ ideas and transformed them into a post about plagiarism and transformation.