Dezeen Magazine

"Don't be afraid to learn by copying others"

"Don't be afraid to learn by copying others"

Opinion: Slovakian designer Tomáš Libertíny, who wrote to Dezeen last month accusing a major advertising agency of exploiting his work, reflects on the nature of copying in design and argues that imitating the work of others should be an integral part of any designer's education. 

Recently, a post on Dezeen showed a great deal of similarity between Dewar’s advertising campaign and my work. The agency’s stunt reminded me of the likes of Adibas, Adidos, Naik and countless other "brands".

Inspired, and having thought about the subject of ethics, originality, progress and education in design, I decided to write a short reflection in the spirit of essays by French Renaissance writer Michel de Montaigne.

"Don't be afraid to learn by copying others"
Tomáš Libertíny

Copy to learn… to be copied to learn

I once heard someone say that the single cause of all the world’s evil are the words: "This is mine!" Picasso said that good artists copy; great artists steal. This is well-known and recently over-quoted thanks to the success of Steve Jobs with Apple. It is also tragically misinterpreted. It is a tongue-in-cheek phrase that insinuates that great artists build on the work of others without anyone spotting it.

Actually, it is more that we forgive them due to the personal spin they give to the bounty. In the light of the recent Tour de France doping scandals, one could say that good cyclists cheat; great cyclists don’t get caught. I am forced to ask myself the same question as Mugatu in the 2001 comedy movie Zoolander: "Doesn't anyone notice this? I feel like I'm taking crazy pills!" Ironically, he claims he invented the piano-key necktie.

American art critic Arthur Danto pondered over the success of Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box. This work would not have been possible without the Brillo box design by James Harvey. I imagine it should have been Harvey and not Valerie Solanas who shot at Warhol. The success of pop art is largely thanks to the appropriation of work of often anonymous designers created for the purpose of a vicious battle for consumers.

Nonetheless, it certainly brought Warhol fame and eventually stardom. His version of the Brillo box also became an icon and a dead end. However, its real relevance is the ecstasy of the mind that hangs in confusion. We love to hope; we love the game. The mystery of David Lynch’s movies has the same mind-tickling effect. It is not surprising, since we celebrate entertainers over caretakers.

It seems to me a sign of foresight that we should recognise the path that people walked and pawed before us. That foresight looks back to secure the future. It was Neil Armstrong who took the first step on the moon but that step was the sum of all the steps taken before him by all humankind (not only those of NASA). Similarly, designers are nothing as individuals.

I want to argue that in our education we should learn from the past and not be afraid to learn by copying others. This type of learning is taking a step further in a purposeful direction, acknowledging the source and paying tribute to the ongoing building of knowledge that defines culture.

Our knowledge of Greek sculptures is through the Roman copies. The actual number of surviving ancient Greek originals is pathetic. By copying, the Romans have not only preserved but also learned and improved. Even the famous statue of Laocoön, admired by Michelangelo, is a copy.

The age-old idea of ownership and possession is a consensus upon which the majority of societies agreed to act to bring order into the growing complexity of relationships. We protect the whole by limiting the individual. Copying is not an act of stealing, but it can give the same advantage.

One can copy someone or something in order to:

» learn about the subject and understand it
» pay homage to it
» acquire the same privileges as the subject and exploit it for personal gain.

The nature of the world is such that all of these are part of life and always will be.

Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges wrote in his essay titled The Flower of Coleridge that for the classic mind, literature is the essential thing, not individuals. You could say the same of design.

My training was classical. When I was about 14 years old I got an assignment for an art class I was privately attending to copy a painting. I chose Portrait of a Sculptor, believed to be the self-portrait by Italian Renaissance painter Andrea Del Sarto. There was a limitation: I had to do it in tempera on paper. It was difficult since tempera acts differently to oil, obviously, but the lesson was priceless. My confidence in the medium had risen. Immediately following the copy of a painting was an assignment to copy nature en plein air. I sat by a tree and looked at the structure, texture and weight of its intertwined branches.

"Don't be afraid to learn by copying others"
Graphite on paper, 1984, Tomáš Gabzdil Libertíny

In the same way, I observed my own hands. I started to see more the longer I looked at them. It was a great exercise in discipline, focus and of course draftsmanship. I felt that I was starting to understand the relationship between skin, flesh and bones. Later, when I was in the first year of my formal design education, we visited a medical school where they fished human body parts from the pool of formaldehyde for us to draw. A human torso was delivered to us on a trolley and there I was, seeing an expired human engine and tracing it on a piece of paper.

"Don't be afraid to learn by copying others"
Graphite on paper, 2001, Tomáš Gabzdil Libertíny

In general, this exercise eventually teaches the mind of any student to look at things. It doesn’t substitute natural talent but nonetheless establishes neural connections that will be prone to recognise relationships, patterns and hierarchies in the world observed. These neural connections may be permanent or flexible, have style or no style (one may argue though that everybody has a style but the difference is quite clear when a rigid and fresh mind approaches a problem).

To learn is to love. Our initial response attaches us to the subject. However, it is the continued study of the subject "as it is" that evolves into love. Bruce Lee in one of his televised interviews says: "If you put water into a cup it becomes the cup. Water can flow or water can crash - be water, my friend".

Spiritual writer Anthony de Mello puts it differently. He says when you cut water, the water doesn’t get hurt; when you cut something solid, it breaks. You’ve got solid attitudes inside you; you’ve got solid illusions inside you. This is what scientists strive for: an unobstructed view. When you truly love something or someone you must first see it.

A common practice of artists of the past was learning through apprenticeship from an older master. Michelangelo did his time as an apprentice too. He preferred copying paintings from churches rather than learning at school. But which of the world’s renowned design academies today have their students copy, for example, Charles Eames chairs? Or a software code in reverse engineering? How about an assignment to write a story like William Shakespeare? Wouldn’t that be a great way to really understand the inner workings of his writing style and language?

In the case of Eames, when I say copy, I mean literally copy and make an exact replica with the resources one has at his or her disposal. Looking at pictures doesn’t teach anyone much more than information about the weather. It is just information. Following design blogs and current trends does not make one a better designer; it makes one a better-informed designer. Despite the fact that information and skill are both pillars of knowledge, there is fundamental difference between them.

Copying is wrong when it is pretending to be original; then copying becomes faking. A fake is the cardinal sin of design, a non-progressive parasite. On the other hand, copying to learn and improve is the most characteristic trait of human behaviour. Unlike non-human primates, which don’t have the cognitive capacity to improve upon something learned, we do. We copy our parents and friends as children in order to become our unique better selves. That is exactly what designers should do.

Unfortunately, our era pushes individuals to perform at early stages as original creators not understanding that the history of design is the history of re-design. Heading towards the new for the sake of the new is counterproductive. Look, for example, at the three volumes of Phaidon Design Classics. An icon is a stage in the process of re-design that reaches its peak; it cannot be a better version of itself. Originality is a myth. Discovery of the not-yet-seen is not. Scottish novelist Robert Louis Stevenson said that there are no foreign lands, it is only the traveler who is foreign.

It was Giorgio Vasari with his Lives of the Most Excellent Italian Painters, Sculptors, and Architects who introduced the myth of an artist. It was Michelangelo, who witnessed his Pietà attributed to Gobbo from Milan, who decided, in the quiet of the night, to carve his name upon it. Vasari distinguished between "disegno" and "invenzione", understanding them as mother and father of the work of art. He saw "invenzione" not as new, but better. He recognised, however, that not everybody was able to reveal the better and it took a genius to fish it out from the pond of knowledge. Hence not everybody is Michelangelo - but we are all fishermen.

Students of design, copy to learn and remember that you are part of the history of design. We are trying to land on Mars.

Libertiny's  Honeycomb Vase was copied by Berlin students at last year's DMY Berlin - read our earlier story »

Tomáš Libertíny is a Slovakian designer working in Rotterdam. He founded Studio Libertíny after completing his masters degree at Design Academy Eindhoven in 2006. His works have been acquired by a number of museums around the world, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York.