Today I came across Matt Legend Gemmell’ssite, after many many abstract references (coming from 512 pixels, daring fireball,parislemonet al), specifically in relation to an essay he had penned on copycat products and the reasons why one should avoid producing them. I read the whole essay, pausing from time to time to think “yes, but..” and found it incredibly tempting to pause and shout my immediate reactions on the web.
I’m glad I didn’t.
The post is full of contentious statements, but I couldn’t agree more with the sentiment involved. Copying the design of others doesn’t only limit you creatively, it tacks on additional layers of complexity and doesn’t really give you the insight into a product and it’s inherent design decisions which will help you when the proverbial hits the fan. Inspiration is one thing – blatant and reverse-engineered copying is another.
I’d highly recommend you read his post in full, it’s more than enough brain fodder for one sitting. I’ll illustrate by pulling a few small choice bits, for your edification;
The issue is that real design jobs aren’t about creating something absolutely new – instead, they’re about innovation. The etymology of the word ‘innovation’ means something like “renewing”, or changing an existing thing by adding something new or doing something differently. Not a clean-cut, start-from-scratch scenario – that’s not what innovation is, and that’s why it’s hard.
It’s thus pretty easy to see why copying happens – because when you see a mature product that’s somehow managed to innovate (to be “new” whilst balancing all the constraints and annoyances of the existing problem), it becomes almost impossible to see how you could do it any other way. Design blindness sets in: the most successful product is the only possible design. Which, of course, is nonsense – but a very convincing, insistent, tempting sort of nonsense.
I think the elephant in the room here is the question of how hard these designers are prepared to try, how far they’re prepared to work at something (perhaps even without knowing much about what it’s consequences might be). Is it good enough? Not yet. Why not? Let’s just pack it in and say it’s done. Design is never about knowing what the outcome is, it’s about working through a problem, thinking about the bigger questions inherent in any problem, and how they can be helped by thisdecision.
The lesson of the technology industry in the past five years is that really successful products dare to NOT copy. They’re pure, in that they’re actually designed from first principles – they’re based on the problem and the constraints, without being viewed through the lens of someone’s existing attempt. You know, the kind of thing you actually wanted to work on when you got your degree and were still unsullied by the lazy, corporate machine.
Some might call it ROI. Some might call it optimization. Some might even call it business acumen. Thinking about how much return you will get on this effort – and the cost of not doing so. It has the unintended consequence of making businesses lazy. Why aren’t you trying harder to make not only the immediate thing you’re making – but the entire organization and microcosm it lives in – better?
I’ll leave you with one last nugget from MLG;
If your boss won’t let you do that, get another boss – because life is too short, and there’s always another boss (or client), and I really hope you can’t put a price on your self-respect.