is a blog about design, technology and culture written by Khoi Vinh, and has been more or less continuously published since December 2000 in New York City. Khoi is currently Principal Designer at Adobe, Design Chair at Wildcard and co-founder of Kidpost. Previously, Khoi was co-founder and CEO of Mixel (acquired by Etsy, Inc.), Design Director of The New York Times Online, and co-founder of the design studio Behavior, LLC. He is the author of “Ordering Disorder: Grid Principles for Web Design,” and was named one of Fast Company’s “fifty most influential designers in America.” Khoi lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn with his wife and three children. Refer to the advertising and sponsorship page for inquiries.+
Designer Jose Bento wrote in this Medium post about his experience re-creating the InVision user interface, detail by detail, including redrawing every icon. In doing so, he says he was able to put himself in the shoes of the app’s designers and learn about their thinking in a way that wouldn’t be possible by merely examining it.
This got me thinking about the value of copying. In this day and age, copying in any artistic pursuit is taboo. Culturally, economically and legally we emphasize the new and the novel, if not the original, and we look down on copying as lazy and ethically bereft. And rightly so; there’s nothing to redeem the act of copying another work and presenting it as your own.
On the other hand, there’s a compelling case to be made for copying as a learning technique. It’s a time honored form of learning and apprenticeship in painting, for example; if you’ve ever visited an art museum you’ve probably seen art students with easels and palettes literally reproducing canvases from the great masters. Of course, the point of doing so is not to produce a finished piece of work to call your own, but rather to understand each constituent decision that the master made and in doing so develop for yourself a more comprehensive way of thinking about how you practice your craft.
Furthermore, the end goal isn’t even to be able to paint or produce work in the style of the artist being emulated. The writer Hunter S. Thompson famously re-typed, word for word, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” just to learn how it was done. In fact, that exercise fed directly into a much different, highly original work of his own, as Louis Menand recounted in this article about Thompson in The New Yorker:
He used to type out pages from ‘The Great Gatsby,’ just to get the feeling, he said, of what it was like to write that way, and Fitzgerald’s novel was continually on his mind while he was working on ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’…
It’s odd then to realize that copying product interfaces is such an uncommon learning technique in design. If you think about what Bento did, it’s exactly in line with what Thompson did and what art students (or apprentices) have done for centuries: understand a work at its lowest level in order to improve at the highest level. What’s more, as Bento demonstrates in his video, it’s even easier to re-create designs than it is to re-create other forms of art. With a painting or sculpture, it’s often difficult to get access to the historically accurate tools and materials that were used to create the original. With today’s product design, the tools are readily available; most of us already own the exact same software employed to create any of the most prominent product designs you could name. If you want to learn how to design like the designers you admire, there may be no technique you could pursue that would be easier and more enlightening than just copying it, pixel by pixel.+