On (the undying topic of) copying

~ 26 October 2009 ~

Written more than 6 years ago, my SitePoint article, “Good Designers Copy, Great Designers Steal”, is still referenced from time to time as I chat with other designers by email, at conferences, and the like. It struck a chord with people — whether positive, negative, or both — and today that chord still hums.

I suppose it’s because the topic isn’t new, nor did I invent it. After all, I was quoting Pablo Picasso as the supposed source of the quote, and he died more than 35 years ago. Others, such as drummer Tony Williams, have said the same.

Here again I present another quote on the topic. This one is from Helmut Krone, art director of the famed 1960s campaign for the VW Beetle, as quoted in Luke Sullivan’s excellent Hey Whipple, Squeeze This:

I asked one of our [young] writers recently, which was more important: Doing your own thing or making the ad as good as it can be? The answer was ‘Doing my own thing.’ I disagree violently with that. I’d like to pose a new idea for our age: ‘Until you’ve got a better answer, you copy.’ I copied [famous Doyle Dane art director] Bob Gage for five years.

This wise counsel was given in an interview with Advertising Age back in 1968. That’s how timeless the advice is for young and inexperienced designers to craft their work by following their mentors’ lead, rather than diverting from it.


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