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Dan Rubin's SuperfluousBanter

Design, random musings, and the Web. Since 1977


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 by Dan Rubin on Wednesday, March 7th, 2007.


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5 comments on “Let’s Talk About Appropriation, Baby”

  1. Posted by Sean S on Wednesday, March 7th, 2007.

    I must’ve drafted at least three comments on Jeff’s post to try and communicate what you’ve just said, but I couldn’t ever get it out right.

    Well said, I agree. No more art comparisons.

  2. Posted by Tudor on Wednesday, March 7th, 2007.

    I heartily agree, and you illustrated your points beautifully, but I take minor exception to the “music is art” bit.

    I’ve always considered most pop music to be more “craft” than art (and I say this as a rock musician). There is no doubt that without the great bands of yesterday, the sounds of today would not exist… they all build on what came before. I view design in a similar fashion: it might not be art, but in my mind, design is certainly a craft that is informed (however unintentionally) by previous creative work.

    Maybe I’m off base, though… after all, what we consider classical music today may have been the pop music of its time. However, I think there was kind of a seedy underbelly of minstrels and folk music throughout Western culture, even back then.

  3. Posted by Dan Rubin on Wednesday, March 7th, 2007.

    @Tudor: the important distinction that I made in the third paragraph is that “design is meant to be used”–music is appreciated, it’s listened to, it’s enjoyed, but it doesn’t fall under the “used” category in the same way as a physical or virtual user interface.

    It could indeed be argued that artists these days are “designing” songs rather than composing them, but that still doesn’t affect my earlier distinction between art and design.

    Jeff’s original article tries to explain the process of appropriation using a medium (music, jazz in particular) that does not closely relate to ours (design, web in particular). My addendum is simply an attempt to bring the process closer to home for the majority of readers in this context.

  4. Posted by Nguyet on Monday, March 26th, 2007.

    Hi Dan, it was great to see you at SXSW, albeit very briefly.

    Just wanted to say I enjoy your article. From the point of view of one doing both painting and design, I face very different challenges in each field. I have very limited knowledge of Jazz, and so your article is much more relatable.


  5. Posted by JD Graffam on Wednesday, April 11th, 2007.

    I agree with you, but I want to clarify something: art can serve a concrete purpose, and I would say that in some (many) situations, art is crafted to compel action. I agree that there is a distinction, as you say, between art and design. Used for an action is different than designing for interaction. Maybe it’s misused sometimes, and confused with design, but good design definitely uses art.

    One note, however: I think it’s dangerous to imply that art is a passive creation ( I know you use music as your example, but to make a point I’m pretending you said art): “music [or art] is appreciated, it’s listened to, it’s enjoyed, but it doesn’t fall under the “used” category.” Since when?

    Just think of how the White House runs: power is conveyed through the careful crafting of a Presidential image.In homes, people cover their walls in expensive local art to convey their role in society.In the TV show American Chopper, corporate sponsors line up to purchase choppers which are given artistic flourishes that outweigh the functionality of the bike, and the brands profit because they’re embracing the core market’s values and appreciation of creativity.

    All the protagonists in these situations would say that they’re using a mix of design and art. Music and any other art form is capable of conveying a message or making a difference in the social, business and political worlds.

    I feel like the main point of your article was to identify that design is simply the rethinking of other things that have been designed. What was the last designed thing you discovered that was truly new or fresh, by your definition? I’d argue (I think like you would) it’s hard to find anything new in design or art, but that that doesn’t make what’s created any less admirable, easy-to-use or moving.