The Dark Art of Copying

It’s about time that the stigma of copying be released from the deathly grips of creatives. The term copying has become voodoo; it’s something we urge everyone to steer clear of. Contrary to this belief, I encourage copying for it’s the foundation of learning, enables progress over time, and it serves an undervalued and unnoticed purpose in our everyday lives.

We don’t want to be a copycat, right? We don’t want someone to point fingers at us. We’re scared of resembling the stylistic work of someone else because we know we’ll receive backlash. We know the repercussions of copying—public shaming. When you copy, you instantaneously become a cheat, a fake, a fraud—or so we’re told.

We’ve become so concerned with originality and less concerned with expression. Our obsession with originality in art and design has naively blinded us to the fact that everything original is actually the result of copying which preceded it, for nothing is new.

The issue with the originality over expression mindset is that it ultimately holds people back. That mindset tells people, if I have nothing original to make I shouldn’t make anything at all. The problem here is that’s not how we learn, and it keeps people from ever moving at all.

Our intellect and thought process is entirely derived from observation—the copying and interpretation of information surrounding us.

As babies, we learn to make noises and eventually speak by copying the sounds we hear around us. Wouldn’t it be absurd if we ridiculed babies for copying the sound a car made? That’s the process of learning.

While we are in school, we are encouraged to take notes which is the act of copying down the information our teachers are giving us. Early on we practice copying letters and eventually words. In math class, we copy examples of math problems to better understand them. In art classes, we copy how the teacher sets up a 3 point perspective grid. In school, we copy. That’s the process of learning.

The obsession with producing original work leads to everything taking the shape of a competition. The “original or die” mindset discourages collaboration and ultimately inhibits progress. Imagine if every scientist took on this mindset, it’d be as if we took a time capsule a couple hundred years back because without scientists sharing and copying information our medical advancements wouldn’t be what they are today.

If we look back at the work of Pablo Picasso, you surely wouldn’t call him a copycat, would you? If we look back at the work of Georges Braque, his close friend and another father of Cubism, no one would call him a copycat either. These two defined and pushed Cubism to what we know it as today. These are both extremely well-respected artists, and no one would dare accuse them of copying, however, some of their work is suspiciously similar.

Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque

Left: Pablo Picasso, The Accordionist. Right: Georges Braque, Portuguese

The two worked very close with one another, and they did, in fact, copy one another. So why aren’t they copycats? Because the two were actively and openly working to push not only their own abilities but the field of art as a whole. They were learning and progressing art.

Take the same way we looked at Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque and apply it to the Impressionist group of the late 19th Century. A group of artists all working together, producing similar style work, thriving off of one another, copying and learning from one another, progressing an era of art.

Copying is literally the process of evolution. The more you copy something, the more it changes.

Have you ever played the game telephone? The objective of the game is to whisper a sentence into someone’s ear and it’s their mission to then relay that message to the next person, and so on. By the time the message reaches the last person, it tends to be entirely different from the original. But isn’t everyone just relaying the same message? That’s the objective, however, we hear and interpret things differently. Just as the message changes during a game of telephone, the details, style, and overall message of a piece of work change the more times it’s copied over.

Copying has such a negative connotation, but I don’t think people recognize just how much we copy on a daily basis and just how important it is.

The cars you see on the road every day are copies of individual designs that are tested and verified to be safe and efficient on the roads. Imagine if every car was an original, first it wouldn’t be possible, second it’d be extremely expensive, third it’d be entirely unsafe.

Look at all of the letters I’m using to write this article. Not only are the letters designed for systematic copying, but the font being used can be found on tons of other sites. Let’s take a look below at the evolution of the minuscule where copying is evident and integral to the development of the letterforms we use today.

Evolution of minuscule

The computer or phone you are reading this on is a copy. There are thousands of variations of pencils and pens, and of each variation there are millions of copies scattered across the world. We have copies of our keys. There countless copies of lawyer/doctor dramas on TV. In Nashville, Tennessee there is an exact copy of the Parthenon as it would have looked during its glory days. Hundreds of Eiffel tower memorabilia are sold each day.

We use and abuse intentional copying to the point in which we forget it exists because we take it for granted, yet we instantly and unreluctantly bash the idea of copying as it relates to art and design. We have overly romanticized ideas of what art and design actually are. We are not creating original work nor are we obligated to do so. To reiterate, copying isn’t inherently a bad thing, in fact, it is at the foundation of our learning process, how things change and progress over time, and integral to our everyday lives. Keep copying, keep learning, keep growing.