Written by Nick Heer.

In Praise of Copying

Matthew Ström:

Some people have been frustrated by copying, refused to accept it, and struggled with every ounce of their strength against it. Other people have used copying to their advantage, whether to improve themselves, build a community, or subvert authority.

I’ve only been able to have a career in design because I copied.

I hope that by the time you’ve finished reading, you’ll see how important copying is. Right or wrong, virtue or vice, copying is the way design works.

This essay — Ström refers to it as a “short book” — struck me as thoughtful and perhaps an attempt at being provocative. However, it makes many of the same arguments as many other works about the value of copying and the restrictive qualities of intellectual property protection. As I worked my way through it, I landed on this paragraph that crystallizes the essay’s argument and what I find misleading about it:

I don’t fancy myself to be the van Gogh of design, to be anywhere on the level of Stallman or Carmack in my approach to copying, possessing even one-one-hundredth of Steve Jobs’ ability to steal artfully, or to be in any way comparable to Charles or Ray Eames. But I can certainly copy all of their work. I can copy their mindset, their process, and their designs.

I fully buy the argument that copying prior art is a fundamental step in learning a craft. But I do not think copying a finished work inherently results in duplicating the process or mindset of creating the original. That requires thoughtful copying — a more deliberate action than simply re-creating something made by someone else.

I wish that is what this essay explored in more detail, because it feels like Ström got so close and then stopped writing. There are several paragraphs before the one I quoted above and only a few more after, and none of them truly explore copying and critical thinking together.