Good Designers Copy, Great Designers Steal

    Cameron Moll
    Cameron Moll

    Pablo Picasso, the first living artist to be featured in the Louvre, influenced the artistic world in a uniquely original way. So why is he known for saying “Good artists copy, great artists steal”?

    It’s true. Picasso really said, “Good artists copy, great artists steal.” Or at least, since his death in 1973, everyone believes he said that.

    But why? Why would someone as original as Picasso say something as ironic as that? And what did he mean? Google Picasso’s quote, and you’ll find plenty of opinions and interpretations as to what he really meant.

    My intent here, then, is to uncover one possible interpretation. This interpretation involves three levels of design, each of which:

    1. involves some aspect of copying or stealing,
    2. shows increasing design maturity, and
    3. adapts Picasso’s quote to modern graphic design.
    Three Levels of Design

    To help you understand my reasoning, I’ve segmented this interpretation into three levels. Are these the only three levels of design? Of course not. They’re only a guide to help improve your design maturity as related to copying and stealing.

    I’ve included short case studies to effectively demonstrate the primary concept at each level — at least, that’s the intent. You be the judge as to whether or not they’re effective examples.

    Level 1: Copy, Don’t Create

    I’m all for being as original as possible, but a beginning Web designer (or any designer, for that matter) should start out by copying other well-created designs.

    Gerry McGovern, Web copywriting guru, makes the same argument for writers:

    One of the simplest tricks that professional writers learn can greatly ease the process of getting ready to write: look for a model of the kind of article you need to do, then dissect it, analyze it – and copy it. . . . Novice writers often make two mistakes: they think they need to be entirely original, and they think they need to wait for “inspiration.” Take it from the pros: for most kinds of writing, originality and inspiration are overrated.

    Replace the instances of “writers” and “writing” in Gerry’s quote with “designers” and “Web design” and the message is the same: copy, don’t create.

    Surprisingly, there’s a positive side effect to copying: conventionality. Building on the same foundation as other sites — specifically, layout and information architecture — often leads to intuitiveness and familiarity for the end user. By no mistake do and have similar navigation structures.

    Additionally, if your career is anything like mine, you hardly ever enjoy the luxury Michelangelo relished as he expended four long years completing the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Often, we have only four months — more likely, four weeks. So, in a commercial art environment such as Web design, copying is almost mandatory, given the time constraints and budget limitations we face.

    Case Study

    The source:


    The result:


    IDI’s corporate Website, created over two years ago, exemplifies Level 1 design very appropriately. Most of us working on the project at the time — including myself, the Art Director — had less than two years of Web design experience. We needed a polished source to act as the foundation for the layout of our site.

    After hours of searching, we found that Nike’s Canada Website was the perfect fit. The design style was technically appealing. The layout architecture was simple, yet strong. The only thing lacking was additional text to draw visitors in.

    So we took Nike’s design and ran with it. You don’t have to struggle to see the adapted result is close to the original source.

    Level 2: Steal From Yourself

    Simply put, one of the best sources from which you can steal is yourself.

    Think about it. You probably have a folder on your hard drive that contains dozens of designs that were never used or completed. You’ve created designs that have been a success with clients. And more importantly, your distinctive design style is probably a selling point for many of your clients.

    Why not tap into some of the great work you’ve created that was either unused or never fully completed? Or even better, reinvent some of your work that was highly successful in establishing your personal style?

    Case Study

    The source:


    The result:


    The final design for the ARRAY Website was the result of discarded design usage. The QuicksiteBuilder layout was created a few years ago, but never made it past the comping stage (notice the filler text and Rubberball watermark on the comp graphic).

    Instead of starting at ground zero with the ARRAY Website — which did make it to production — I chose to create the layout using elements from the unused QuicksiteBuilder comp design. QuicksiteBuilder and ARRAY are similar products, making a ‘steal’ the ideal solution. The style established by the photo of the woman, the headline and sub-headline, and the three column highlights were all a direct result of personal stealing.

    Level 3: Steal From Discrete Sources

    A good design friend of mine, Jesse Bennett, adorns his signature on message board posts with a quote by Albert Einstein: “The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.”

    Perhaps the easiest way to ‘hide’ your sources is simply to use sources that are already hidden.

    “Picasso hardly meant that great artists steal popular designs whose original source is known to everyone,” says Wes George, writer for The Mac Observer and financial Mac nut.

    “What Picasso did mean was that great artists rummage through the great junk heap of lost, bypassed, and forgotten ideas to find the rare jewels, and then incorporate such languishing gems into their own personal artistic legacy… Picasso implied that great artists don’t get caught stealing because what they appropriate they transform so thoroughly into their own persona, that everyone ends up thinking the great idea was theirs in the first place.”

    Level 3 entails the difficult process of searching through magazines, books, Websites, historical artifacts, cultural compositions and other rich design sources to locate those unused and forgotten ideas Wes speaks of.

    Case Study

    The source:


    The result:


    Recently, I was asked to design the logo for a T-shirt to be offered to IDI’s Quality Assurance (QA) department.

    The design for the logo shown above was ‘stolen’ from MasterClips’ vector clip art collection. As I thumbed through the catalog, I somehow landed on the clip art shown in red. Although created years ago, the looped design had a trendy Generation X feel to it — exactly what I was looking for, as the majority of the QA department were Gen X’ers.

    The chances of someone else having used this particular piece of clip art were very slim. And the chances of the intended audience — or anyone else for that matter — being familiar with such a piece were even slimmer. Translation? A perfect source for stealing.

    A Warning

    This article wouldn’t be complete without a warning to be careful when copying well-known sources. If I were to summarize this warning in one sentence, this would be my golden verbiage: copy the inspiration, not the outcome.

    For example, since the introduction of the iMac, Apple’s design has been inspired by a very liquid and visually tangible look and feel, coupled with a “less is more” attitude.

    A beautifully rendered copy of the inspiration behind Apple’s design leads to something like

    At the opposite end of the spectrum, a horribly blatant copy of the outcome of Apple’s design leads to something like

    In short, be careful what you copy, and how you copy. Take the time to make the design your own, or you’ll land a spot as the latest design thief on


    Picasso Resources

    Quotations by Pablo Picasso

    Piracy Against Apple, It’s A Cultural Thing, Wes George

    The Web Content Style Guide, Gerry McGovern

    MasterClips Vector Clip Art