Drawing the Line Between Imitation and Creation

Imitation is said to be the sincerest form of flattery, but it is the laziest form of creativity. 

There is a common response from my design students when I give them their first project assignment: They want to see some examples of previous work. But I won’t show them examples. Instead, I provide them with a specification sheet (a design brief), describe the desired outcome, answer their questions and provide information for them to go forth, design and conquer. I will show them inspiration images, suggest artists and designers to research and even present approaches they might take to solve the problem. But they really don’t like it when I don’t show them previous work.

There is a reason why I don’t: They have to be able to see the thing before it exists. That’s what designers do. We imagine and envision first, plan it out and then manifest the thing into actuality.

It is easy to imitate: to simulate or copy something else. It is also easy to innovate: to change something that already exists by adding to it, deriving from it or expanding on it. But to create is to bring something into existence that isn’t there already. It is a different pursuit requiring a different set of skills.

To create something, we must be able to see it first in our mind’s eye while it does not exist. This is a daunting concept if we have never had to seriously think creatively. In our desire to do things right the first time in the most expedient manner, we default to imitation – a safe but non-creative endeavor. Creating is a courageous act in that we go boldly where no one has gone before, not knowing exactly how it will turn out but knowing what it’s supposed to be because we’ve got it solidly in mind.

Imitation does not build creative thinking or the necessary confidence in oneself to be a designer. Imitation can never see beyond where or what it is, and does not allow for the development of a distinct artistic style and voice because it only copies someone else’s. A copy cannot measure up to the original.

I ask my students to be creative instead of imitative and to know the difference between the two.

Alvalyn Lundgren

Alvalyn Lundgren is the founder and design director at Alvalyn Creative, an independent practice near Thousand Oaks, California. She creates visual branding, publications and books for business, entrepreneurs and authors. She is the creator of Freelance Road Trip — a business roadmap program for creative freelancers. Contact her for your visual branding, graphic and digital design needs. Join her on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and subscribe to her free monthly newsletter.

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Philip Gomez

    Alright, so Shakespeare was not creative as he based his plays on previous work. Now we know. Picasso will have to be revised. He didn’t just borrow; he openly stole. And by the way, now we are on this subject. There is a famous quotation, that teachers love to hung in Art Schools’ walls that goes: ‘Art is not the application of a cannon of beauty…’ Then, he goes on about the brain. Can anyone says what exactly was in Picasso’s brain apart from what he found around?

    1. Ann

      I’m a professional artist I have been for 38 years I went to the Cadda me a fine art and I can tell you right now if somebody ripped off my work derivative work we be in litigation right now and it has happened where my stuff was knocked off a real large should be able to take their own photographs to pay from should be able to design their own things without stealing someone else’s work it is not the most sincere form of flattery it’s lazy and it lacks talent ambition and creativity and I can see that with great authority having taught students having made a seven-figure a year income off my artwork I’m both a business person and an artist and I’ve testified in lawsuits against people for derivative work Shakespeare if he stole shame on him

  2. David

    There can be no creation before imitation though.

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