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 principal of Alvalyn Creative, an independent consultancy providing brand strategy design and bespoke illustration for more than 30 years. She is the creator of Freelance Road Trip — a business school and podcast for creative freelancers. She teaches design and design practice on the college level with design schools and programs.