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When Developers and Designers Risk Slipping From “Inspired By” to “Copying From”

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The pressure to copy or take inspiration from other sites is pretty high for web designers and developers. The line can be a fine one, and there are many examples of brilliant riffs on other’s work and those whose rip-offs were exposed.

As a web designer, there is often pressure, either from the client or bosses to borrow on the work of others. They might have seen a feature, design element, template or style on another site, and suggest or insist it be used in their design. The trend rages across businesses large and small with those in one market or vertical likely to try and follow their peers, from juggling the elements around a bit to blatant copying.

Despite warnings that too many sites look alike, there is a good reason for borrowing from existing designs. The effect from borrowing design is proven to succeed. If a site looks like Apple’s, it instantly confers some of the style and panache from the Mac company on to another. That’s why there are many sites with huge expanses of white space, hi-res product images dominating the text and a minimalist approach when it comes to interactive features.

Xiaomi started life as a Chinese company rampantly copying Apple’s design style for its mobile products. It also took many cues from Apple’s site  to use on its own. In a few short years it has succeeded in mirroring Apple, and is now more confident and not afraid to cut its own path. However, smaller Chinese rivals see Xiaomi as the one to imitate and end up following the same path. Meizu is one example, creating a trickle down effect of very similar elements.

Social media sites are also a hotbed of plagiarism, with Pinspire/Pinterest leading the way in the clone production factory, but there are many more examples. The higher the profile the more likely people are to notice, and complain.

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Inspiration over Attack of the Clones

Some elements are fair game for borrowing, that’s what templates, typefaces and other standard features are there for. As trends come and go, these fall in and out of style. However, every designer or developer worth their salt will want to tweak the presentation, to put their stamp on the project and be looking to create some degree of differentiation.

However, some businesses simply decide to go lock, stock and barrel when it comes to imitating a competitor, taking their business model, design and features in one heist for their own ends. This happens more among web services and businesses, where presumably among the mass of similar services these cloners hope their theft will go unnoticed, or they hide behind the legal murk of another jurisdiction.

“Don’t focus on the competition, they’ll never give you money.” – Jeff Bezos

One such example is the tale of Hiveage, which was brazenly ripped off by an Austrian company called Invoicely. The cloning was so complete that it even copied over some of the original web app’s bugs, a warning to developers everywhere about copying code. You can read the whole story here.

hiveage

Where to Draw the Line

Every developer and designer will have their own sense of what is acceptable behavior and what is pushing it. As an employee, if you are instructed to follow another design, then you have little choice to go along with the plan, but ensure your objection is noted, and if you company has a legal team, highlight the issue to them.

Stop Copying Your Competitors: They Don’t Know What They’re Doing Either

Peep Laja, ConversionXL

Otherwise, as with many creative endeavors, there is a natural drive to push and try to do things better, which can help move the idea to clone or copy beyond the original. Certainly, developers can work up their code to add new features, for sites to be smoother or faster in operation. Designers can add their own flourish in both small and major details, while trying to create options for the client that extend and improve on the source material.

Conclusion

No matter how small or large your company, or the client, there is no excuse for cloning or ripping off, which is the laziest approach to your trade. Whatever pressure there is to clone, should be turned into a creative challenge to be and do better.

Pragmatic Routines for Improving your Digital Design Skillset

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