When I was 16 in Harvard Square I saw an eight foot tall woman painted white as marble standing on the street completely still. There was a basket full of change in front of her so I threw in a few quarters. She instantly came to life and started singing opera. You might not be a fan of her particular brand of performance art, but you have to admit it was original.
All artists strive for originality, but for most of us the web is a hybrid art form. You want your software to look good, but the Internet favors function over form. Making original unusable UI is easy. Making something new and usable is art.
Good artists copy and the great ones steal outright (I stole that). Stealing directly is morally questionable and not very effective. Nobody wants to see a me too UI.
They don’t want to see something totally new either. Totally new UI means learning ocmpletely new metaphors. It also means reinventing the wheel. How do you create something original but familiar? The guys from Stress Limit Design came to my rescue again when they gave me some simple advice, “steal from two places and you’ll make something original.
UI design is the art of combining existing ideas into something new, but unlike rap in the 80′s sampling is encouraged in software. The main page of this site was inspired bya combination of the cover of My Cocaine Museum by Michael Taussig and the uncluttered UI of 37 Signals. Grids are everywhere, but that specific grid stuck with me. It hung around in my brain for a few years before it emerged as this site.
How NOT to steal
Let’s start with the basics. Don’t copy anyone’s text or images without their permission. It is a copyright violation, it is illegal, and it won’t help you. Nobody wants to see someone elses material with your name on it.
Don’t steal from only one source. There are many parts of a UI you can legally steal. Nobody can copyright a navigation scheme or or a color palette, but if you copy from one site you’ll just look derivative. The whole idea is to make something new.
Theft for fun and profit
There are a few general guidelines to help you steal responsibly and successfully.
Steal ideas, not content. I love Jason Santa Maria‘s work and I steal from him all the time. Creating a blog with a different design for each article and making a single column blog were both ideas I stole from him.
Expose yourself to as many ideas as possible. For me the best way to steal is to see something and then think about it for a while. In my brain it gets a little fuzzy around the edges and becomes something else. That only works because I am constantly looking for good ideas.
Stop staring at your computer. Design is all around us. Go to a museum, look at architecture, read books. Get all of these sources into your brain.
Be really nice to the people you steal from. When you steal from someone you owe them a little credit. Let people know who your influences are. Most people are happy to hear how their work inspired you.
We all stand on the shoulders of giants. I didn’t invent computers or the Internet, I just added my own little pieces. Combine what you see and make something innovative and just a little different. Then tell me about it. I’m always looking for something new to steal from.