On Copying

August 2, 2023

Two weeks ago, Design Twitter was up in arms about an agency launching a brand that was similar to another brand in the same category.

People were quick to claim plagiarism! The agency had simply been given a brief and then looked at a smaller, better-looking competitor and quietly borrowed their colours, illustration style, copy, etc., then announced it to the world!

I received a few calls that week from industry people who thought the claims were ridiculous (they are), and who wisely didn't want to get caught up in all the Twitter noise.

Whether you thought that this agency had copied the smaller company or not, I think it says a lot about how you think about commercial creativity. I don't think it's necessarily tied to experience (although there is a bit of that in it). But it is really fascinating to me that people really do think that a studio, which is only as good as their last project, would publicly copy anyone.

Now there is another conversation here about the convergence of visual culture around funded technology startups, but that's a much bigger conversation.

All of this got me thinking about copying work in product design.

Yesterday, I needed to design an analytics dashboard for a mobile app. I was stuck. I didn't really understand what I was being asked to do, and my clients were asleep in another time zone.

When you don't understand the context around what you're designing, it can be very difficult to begin. So I opened up the Shopify app on my phone because that was the only thing I could think of that had a dashboard kind of interface.

I decided to take the structure of the page as a starting point and after a few minutes, remembered why that is never a good idea.

When you copy someone else's design solution, you also inherit a web of connected decisions that are baked into that solution and will always come back to bite you.

This all speaks to a broader idea that I've been exploring, broadly called 'product physics'. But basically, every problem has its own unique set of requirements and user needs, etc. When you get close enough to them and understand them really intimately, you start to see what feels like the edges of a particular problem. The edges are like rules that can't be broken or moved. Similar to gravity or the speed of light in physics.

A basic example of this is that in video and music playback, time goes from left to right, or that (in the west) our text goes from top left to right then down. These sound obvious, but they are the core rules that dictate a lot about how a product will be designed.

As you get deeper into a problem, more rules appear, and your solution has to consider them. Eventually, you land at something that solves the problem for users without breaking any of the rules of the problem space. Success!

And then I come along and copy your dashboard without having any exposure to the hours and hours of work that have gone into choosing a scrollable pill nav vs. a drop-down or whatever, and I run with it.

It's a false economy. I feel like I'm making progress. I have something to show the client. But really, what I've done is set us all up for failure.

The right approach, if you can get everyone to agree, is to spend time upfront discovering the particular physics of your problem space. Measure twice, cut once. And I should be doing that right now.

I think this is true in a similar way for branding too. Brands feel to me like they have similar edges to them. There are colours, words, visuals that you can and can't use for different reasons. Maybe it's a cultural thing, maybe a brand owns 'red' in the market, whatever. But there are similar edges that need to be understood.

Great work to me is the stuff that appears from a well-understood set of rules but does something completely new within them. It doesn't happen often, but when it does, it's beautiful and exciting!

I think there is always that possibility with projects. But sometimes the stars need to align for you to be able to find that great solution hidden amongst all the noise.

A side note: In product/UX, there is a difference between copying a design and using well-established design patterns to solve a problem. But I'll write more on that another time.

Back to the drawing board for me.

Me being a thief!