August 30, 2019

When I used to be a student in design school, I was obsessed with creating works that were original, that nobody had ever seen before. I compromised on the quality of my work, justifying my lack of finesse under the guise of “creativity”, and became resentful towards some of my peers who achieved good grades by blatantly copying whatever they saw. One time, I remember being told once by one of my lecturers, “I’d rather you copy others than produce shit like this.”

Although I wasn’t quite accepting of his comment, I do now see the merits behind it. Perhaps his tone or harsh words weren’t ideal, but his intentions were clear—there are many great works out there where one can adapt and learn how to apply them appropriately, and still be unique.

Pablo Picasso once said, “Good artists copy, great artists steal.” While there is a difference between “copying” and “stealing”, it is a classic representation of imitation versus inspiration with the key distinction being the intention behind it. Stealing connotes ownership, taking something and making it yours, whereas copying connotes reproducing something that belongs to someone else.

The inherent idea that creativity means coming up with something completely original on your own, couldn’t be further from the truth. Ideas have to come from somewhere, and even the best creative directors and artists in the world thrive on inspiration. Through decades of “stealing”, many of these creatives are able to build a huge library of ideas, and they never stop consuming vast amounts of information to draw references from multiple sources. To them, creativity isn’t about creating something entirely new, but the adaptation of successful examples that already exist, and adding their own personal interpretation to it.

The late founder of Apple, Steve Jobs, is the perfect example of this notion and he is the reason why we are able to type digitally using a wide range of different fonts to express ourselves. Although he did not invent the computer, nor did he invent typefaces, he was to be the first person to integrate typography into personal computers. Shortly after dropping out of college, he recognised the significance of typography after taking a class and decided to introduce it into a whole new platform. Today, he is celebrated as a creative genius, and is also known as the man who popularised the phrase “Good artists copy; great artists steal” back in 1996 by being vocal about stealing great ideas and turning them into his own creations. 

Perhaps another more controversial example would be Virgil Abloh, founder of Off-White and the men’s creative director of Louis Vuitton. Virgil’s signature style is hardly revolutionary. As a standalone, the use of Helvetica, quotation marks on everything, and bold, street-inspired graphics isn’t new. But when packaged together, they suddenly become fresh and innovative. Much of Virgil’s success is also about being in the right place at the right time—with the rise of the fashion world being more inclusive and streetwear influencing a new era of high-end luxury. While most netizens dismiss his credibility as an artist/designer due to his connections and “luck”, Virgil’s global influence is undeniable.

In this day and age, it’s very hard to be original and create something entirely new, but you still can be creative through your approach by building onto an existing idea. At the end of the day, we are only limited by ourselves and the more we learn by looking at others and being open to adapting, the more our perception of creativity changes.