Walking the Fine Line Between Inspiration and Imitation

Nubby Twiglet | Walking the Fine Line Between Inspiration and Imitation

There’s such a fine line between inspiration and imitation. It’s so fine that in retrospect, I’ve crossed it a few times myself.

What is the difference between inspiration and imitation, though?

To me, inspiration consists of gathering imagery you love and creating a mood board. Designers do this for most projects to inform a client of the look and feel they’re going for. Inspiration can set the stage for what’s to come and that’s a good thing. Inspiration can help get the creative juices flowing and makes sure everyone is on the same page. I gather inspiration for every project I do.

On the other hand, imitation is knowingly lifting someone else’s design and claiming credit. I say “knowingly” because most of us have had instances where our work turned out eerily similar to someone else’s but we weren’t aware of it until after the fact. This happens sometimes and it’s completely normal because there’s only so many ways you can do something. We all get on similar brain waves.

I am flattered when someone is inspired by the work Branch does and I always get a thrill when I spot it popping up on their client mood boards. It means that the work we’ve produced is resonating somehow, in some way. I love that. Feeling like you’ve somehow inspired someone else’s work is an honor.

The dark side though is discovering that your work has been taken as-is, perhaps badly modified and written off as someone else’s. This has only happened a handful of times that I know of but when it did, I had that sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.

Back in 2009, when I was building up my freelance clientele, I released a PDF of my print portfolio on my blog, only to come across a version a few months later that had lifted my entire custom design including the cover, simply replacing a cropped close-up of my face with theirs. Everything else, from the fonts to page layouts to description lengths, was identical. If you’ve ever built a portfolio, you know how many months of hard work it can take to put together something even deceptively simple.

Another time, a well-known graffiti artist took my “mouth with pill” logo as-is. It was easy to spot because my original design had been illustrated from a photo of my mouth, mini fangs and all. The artist had printed my design on t-shirts and circulated it in a newsletter without my consent, claiming it as their own. I fired off a cease and desist which cleared up the issue by the next day day but it’s still not fun even thinking about going down that road.

5 Tips Before You Turn In Your Work

Even with endless amounts of research, there’s no surefire way to know if what you’ve created is too similar to someone else’s work. But, there are a few things you can do before you release it:

1. Do a gut check. Does it feel original to you? Have you truly created it from the heart? If you’ve knowingly pulled a little too much inspiration from a source, ask yourself what you can adjust.

2. Find little ways you can make your piece ownable. We all have access to the same programs, type families, shapes and stock images. Print out your piece, step back and figure out how you can further modify it. With Gala’s branding, it was a matter of adding small heart elements to her wordmark. With Olivine, it came down to adding a gold tip to the feather icon. For Blogcademy, it was about slicing and color blocking a basic B icon. Think of that one added twist that takes your design from expected to unique.

3. Ask a trusted source for feedback. A few weeks ago, I was working on branding for a client in an industry that was completely new to me. As the first round neared completion, my gut told me that while the branding looked solid, the icons were feeling a little too familiar. I couldn’t quite place why, though. I called Joey in and he confirmed my suspicion — the icons were too simplistic and probably wouldn’t be able to be trademarked. Because of that, I pushed hard for more unique concepts in the next round. An extra curve here, an extra flourish there. My client ended up picking a much more original option. In the end, we all felt better.

4. Sketch, sketch, sketch. I am not an illustrator by any means but I do make sure to do a ton of thumbnail sketches and map out concepts before I ever get started on designs. It forces me to get my ideas onto paper and figure out ways to customize branding elements without the allure of Pinterest and Dribbble (which I do love).

5. Do a Google image search. I very rarely do this myself but when I was working at larger agencies where an icon had to be trademarked worldwide for a client, we would give this a go if an element felt too familiar. To do this, go to Google, click the images tab and then click the camera icon in the search bar. From there, you can upload a screen shot of your branding and see what transpires.

Always Keep Moving Forward

As difficult as it may be, if someone lifts your work, you can’t let it take over your existence and eat you up inside. If you’re amazing at what you do, by the time you’ve discovered what they’ve taken, you’re already five steps ahead and onto bigger and better things. Always keep moving forward. Dan Phillips once said that “One can steal ideas but no one can steal execution or passion.” Use your talents and push yourself outside of your comfort zone. Your uniqueness will shine.

There Are Honest People

As I was writing this post over the weekend, an email popped up from a travel writer who had googled the name for his project and I happened to have a blog column under the same name. I’d created a custom header for the column ages ago (now defunct) and he inquired whether he could buy it and use it for the branding. I packaged up the files, invoiced him and a few hours later, I passed on the rights and was a few hundred dollars richer. Because he was honest and bought it outright, he has a clear conscience and can use it however he pleases for his project. We both felt good about the transaction. There are always going to be bad seeds but you’ve got to focus on the good because things like this do happen.

Mistakes are inevitable but learn from them. Do your best to stay inspired. Do your best not to imitate. Do your best to create from your heart.

Your turn: With so much inspiration out there, how do you keep yourself from crossing over into imitation?

11 Responses to Walking the Fine Line Between Inspiration and Imitation

  1. Great post. I just went through the process of having 23 blog posts removed from a “life coach”‘s website. She lifted TWENTY-THREE of my posts, nearly word for word. She took content from other people as well and build her whole blog around it. I’m planning to write a post about this experience soon. (Seriously though…TWENTY-THREE POSTS?!?! Who does that?!) Calming down now… :)

    • Shauna says:

      Melanie Biehle: Wow! Just…wow! That’s taking it to another level completely! It’s hard for me to comprehend why anyone would knowingly do this because it completely discounts them as an expert in their field as soon as they’re caught. I’m glad you discovered it, though. It’s not fair for someone to claim all of your hard work as their own!

  2. Bethan says:

    I always ask for permission to use other peoples images, and I actually find it such a positive experience. People really appreciate the courtesy and it’s another way of connecting with other’s who work I admire.

  3. thegirltyler says:

    Loved this post Shauna – could not have come at a better time as I’ve recently been experiencing folks “borrowing” from our work. Your perspective is great though – we’ve all walked that line, whether we’re aware of not of our inspirations. Your last sentence could be a creatives mantra! Thank you for taking the time to write this.

    • Shauna says:

      thegirltyler: Oh, what a bummer! That’s tough when you work so hard to produce original work and then someone lifts it. I hope that gets cleared up soon.

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  5. Melinda says:

    Loved this! I fully agree with this. I have done art that I am about to put up, something I completely made on my own and I’m so proud of it, and come to find out I have a very similar image to another artist! Darn wavelengths!

    I have also had my art stolen, and it was one of the worst experiences ever! But I’m glad I have my Lawyer Uncle there to help me!

    • Shauna says:

      Melinda: We like to think that we are soooo brilliant and original and then come across something almost exactly the same. Haha. Happens to me ALL the time when I’m working on design projects. Doh! And lucky you, having a Lawyer Uncle! I need one of those! 😉

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