Let’s Talk About Appropriation, Baby
My friend and co-author Jeff posed an interesting question a few days ago, about what he calls design “appropriation”—the main question being, essentially, if part of the learning process of design is to learn from the works of others, and if incorporating those styles and patterns of design is part of a designers evolution, then where (or even how) do we draw the line between acceptable influence and ripping someone off?
“You might call it remixing or influence, or you might refer to it as theft, rip-off, or copyright infringement.”
Jeff’s parallels between jazz are a terrific starting point, but the big difference between jazz (or any music for that matter) and design is that (judging by many of the comments on his post) many people can’t make the two relate: music is art (even when done for profit), and design isn’t art.
So, while as a musician (jazz and all sorts of other styles) I get Jeff’s point, and I see and experience it with the music I listen to (the Verve Remixed series is a perfect example of sampling in this manner), I think comparing the issue to product designs will make things even more clear (assuming we all agree that a primary difference between “art” and “design” is that design is meant to be used).
Let’s look at something most of us use every day: the car. Since its introduction, designs have varied a bit, and certainly manufacturers and designers continue to come up with new concepts, but it’s clear that every car design out there has been directly influenced by what has come before, and not just from the same designers or manufacturers. Do you think Henry Ford and his team designed the Model A without first looking at what others had done, and incorporating the good parts?
This shouldn’t need any further explanation for this audience: think of almost any worthwhile feature of a laptop, and then think of how many manufacturers copied that feature and incorporated it into their own designs. It’s exactly like the comment Jeff mentioned from the Microsoft guy at SXSW last year about Vista’s window switching mimicking Exposé: how many Apple laptop features have become standard in all laptops over the years?
Easy example: Apple wasn’t the first company to think “ooh, let’s allow people to put music on a portable device and carry it around with them!” They weren’t even the first to allow you to do that with digital files. And do you think they were the ones who came up with the idea to let users listen to their music using headphones? Sure, they invented and pioneered other parts of the physical interface, and engineered an entire experience, but much of the core concept that is critical to the device was not original.
Think about it for about 10 seconds, then make your own list. This one’s easy. (yes yes, Apple is doing new things with the iPhone, but seriously, it’s still a phone, still makes and receives calls, still has a speaker and a mic, and is hand-held–think about the cornerstones of the design and you find an existing idea with an Apple skin–and you’re damn right I’m buying one :)
A few others for your perusal
I can go on like this for hours listing things we use every day without thinking about the design process that went into them, and how many designers of those products copied the good ideas and conventions that came before.
Without this natural process of appropriation, products would not improve as rapidly. I argue that the same goes for any interface, whether physical or virtual, and forcing yourself to start from a blank canvas every time you design only limits your ability to invent and innovate, rather than enhancing it.
This item was posted byon Wednesday, March 7th, 2007.
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