Good artists copy. Great artists steal.
Copying someone else’s work will only give yours a chance to become as good as the one you’re copying — and that’s the best case scenario. A copy will usually never be as good as the original because it always remains one step behind. Even worse, at the hands of a novice designer a copy could end up looking like a cheap imitation, lacking the finesse and flair of the original.
No — don’t copy that design. Steal it.
Wait… let me elaborate.
When you look at an inspirational design you should be inspired. Take your time to examine its aesthetic and construction in detail — look over all the nuances and intricacies of its structure. See how the creator did this and that — extract the essence of what makes this work great.
To steal a design you must collect all the pieces of the puzzle and figure out how it all works as a whole — why did the artist use this color, why these lines, why this typeface?
Stealing design is an intellectual activity — you must be able to digest and absorb the essence of an inspirational design. Stealing gives you the real gold — it gives you the knowledge to create the work in question. Expand your arsenal of design techniques through learning instead of copying.
Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.
T. S. Eliot
Once you’ve assimilated the principles and ideas employed by a designer in their great piece, you can use those ideas in your own work. You’re not going to copy them — you will instead use these tools only where they make sense, and only where they will work well — that’s because you understand exactly why they were employed in the first place.
Knowing the technique, knowing how to implement it, knowing why it works and where it works are all the things that will let you build on it. Take your inspirations and create something better — create something which works for your site or application. Adapt your inspirations to the function of your work.
There is a great method used by Cameron Moll to design websites, which he calls nodes of inspiration. It involves browsing the web, finding exceptional sites and picking an element from each that you really like and you think would work in your project. Of course you shouldn’t just copy these elements — you must implement them in a way that will work in your context, and add a flair of your own.
In the end, each of the inspired elements were reproduced with Authentic Boredom flavor and are unique in their own right.
So in essence, what I’m advocating isn’t imitation or plagiarism, my version of stealing is one that expands your knowledge and understanding of design. Being inspired is a good thing, and being able to take on those ideas and build on them further with your own twist and perspective will produce great results that are unique to you.