Be inspired or copy: what is the difference? Let’s find it out together

On our italian forums a few weeks ago, the user Giavara posted to the users of Your Inspiration Web an intriguing question: “do you think is correct “take inspiration” from the work you see around?” or: in short, you can really talk about inspiration, and as such a creative process inevitable and ethically correct, or when “inspired” in reality they tend to copy more or less consciously and unashamedly – other people’s work?

We assume that between taking inspiration and copy there is a very tenuous border that often, especially if it is whipped after hours spent looking for the right idea, it is very easy to cross. Dishonesty is not always (at last I’m a very tolerant person): simply that menu seems perfect for the project we are working on, and even that has a gradient shade so hot, not to mention the background and that just like one required by our client … and so on, until, almost without noticing, the site that we admired in the gallery of the day is now entirely in our working paper on Photoshop. Or at least, a draft, because when you copy the full design from someone else, is an irrefutable axiom that it will carry only a draft.

Some good reasons not to copy others’ work

  • If you do not know. Simply copy from scratch buttons, menus and backgrounds designed by others, you preclude the possibility – and obligation, even – to walk with your legs in the world of web design. Do not ever learn how to make that effect so pleasant to look at and you can never be independent and spontaneous in your work, because in the long run become dependent on the creativity of others. And if a customer will require a special effect that, inevitably, you can not copy?
  • What is good for one, can not work for others. A site is not only aesthetic, it is now obvious. So even if you fall in love in love with a grunge background or a green eye Keys seems to do for you, it is far from clear that these elements are the most appropriate design that you plan for your client. Not sure why the designer chose this particular color or because he placed the box just to the right of the menu. There are graphic strategies, aesthetic and visual work only in their uniqueness and rarely can I get the same results on projects that were not designed.
  • If coding requires 3 hours, to copy the same code it takes 9. If you’ve ever tried to edit code developed by others, you know what I mean. Copy the entire code of a site of others is to lose hours and hours trying to change classes and markup, to understand where there are styles for link and why, at that point, you have entered a float. All this on each update for every little effort of customization, because the method of development is personal, a sort of fingerprint of the program and as such require suffering and sacrifice even for the most stupid changes. You really have time to waste? Would not it be more satisfying to learn to do myself?
  • Copy is unethical: the most obvious and important reason. Copy is unfair to those who worked hard to achieve a result that so impressed you: could not find the project in the Easter egg, probably he spent hours and only for this deserves a little respect. But copying is especially unfair to those who have invested in you and believed trustworthy enough to hire you and pay you for your work: you, in effect, are cheating your customer. You are selling an item that already belongs to others and you have no right to pass as your own. And if the ethics argument leaves you unmoved, remember that with the birth of css gallery today is really easy to go back to clones and drafts: as far as I’m concerned, only this week I noticed six clones shameless as many original designs. So if you itch your hands loudly in the throes of an acute artistic kleptomania, remember this: what if someone notices? It would be very difficult to rebuild a name, not to mention the possible legal implications.

Inspiration or plagiarism?

T.S.Eliot said: “Immature poets imitate, mature poets steal. Bad poets deface what they take from great poets and transform it into something better, or at least different”.

We are not poets, but the theory is right. Inspiration works only if, eventually, we can create something totally ours. If not better, at least different. Is fine then make “copy” on that page and paste it on our Photoshop, but only if our intent is to absorb the techniques and author style, understand and adapt to our project. What impressed you so much? How is this nuance? Just trying, approaching, comparing our results with the original, until we get the desired effect. In this way we can no longer talk about plagiarism but study, case study for the accuracy, because only testing can learn and improve our skills.

How to take inspiration, but without copying

I do not agree with those who demonize the gallery css as a “warning to steal the design of third party” man’s free will is very broad and includes the freedom to choose what is good and what is evil, regardless of  the occassion that he has forward.

The search of inspiration is a long and creative process, there  is absolutely nothing objectionable or fraudulent in that.

Step 1 – Do not search what you have to realize, simply obsserve

The most common mistake is to look for a layout that tracings perfectly what we have to realize: if you draw a layout for a site of a construction company, do not just flipping the category “building” of the gallery, or rather just avoid it . What you want is the general inspiration for your design, so avoid narrow down your topic area of your interest: it is obvious that in this way, you’ll easily trace the work of someone else! Therefore, says simply, without a logical order: see the menus, the effects of background, the print shop. Write down the details, eye, hit you more than intuition and believe they can do for you. Make a sort of collage, a patchwork of multiple sites, taking each by a detail that you think you can adapt / customize your project.

Step 2 – Do not take inspiration from a single site, even if perfect

Even if you fall in love at first sight and you know a site that would be perfect for your purposes, do not make the mistake of taking inspiration from it alone for the design of your project. Search again, distracts the focus, try to create mental combinations, do some sketches on the notepad. Decide to take only the best of that theme and look elsewhere for the rest of the layout, otherwise you run the risk of copying the site so that you like, without putting anything of yours.

From theory to practice: be inspired

A very nice article that appeared recently on the ThemeForest blog gave me an idea: how about making a practical example?
Take inspiration from some site found here and there and build our layout, according to careful not to copy (this is not the purpose of this article): we have to do is take the cue and rework some proposals graphics, at first sight inspire us and seem suitable for our purpose.

The site that we build on this week, we take a local example … a glamorous, a place where you can eat, drink and dance. A meeting place for young people, say. And after a bath of inspiration, the result is the following:

Not bad, eh?

But see what I was inspired during the implementation phase of the layout. First I fell in love at first sight of the color palette of the site and I wanted SHS Nutrition repeat, with a strength similar to my layout.

Searching inside the gallery I found a really attractive site from the head: I got the idea from this photo full screen and the menu above it, with voices accompanied by icons themes.

As you see it is the same style, but it can not be said that I copied the menu site Ergpa: I actually used a transparency, icons above and lateral to the menu items, font and style icons completely different also do not have either provided a slider, or inserted text content on the photo, and logo instead of being placed in a special section at the top left, is inserted into the background. Are more similarities or differences, at this point?

Within the layout, and inspired by a website since a few days ago on CSS Mania, I added some Polaroids, which transmit the idea of freshness and youth needed to my room.

As you can see they have absolutely nothing in common: I was inspired to JustALove site, it is true, but the Polaroid has a completely different design, which I myself have designed and custom: a different picture is cutting, positioning and written under them. Anyway, the idea of a polaroid is now quite common in web design.

Finally, according to the footer, I was totally inspired by the site divided into two sections, separated by a shadow, the top section more clear than less … and so on, until you reach the following result:

Very similar, n’est pas? Yet so different. This is because I was inspired, it is true, but I have absolutely not copied or mimicked the work of others.


In this article we have seen, with some good examples, what is the thin (but perhaps not so much) difference between taking inspiration from a site and copy or trace the design and style. Always think that taking inspiration is unethical? What do you think of the argument “clones & web design”? Share your ideas and experiences with the people of YIW!


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The Author

Web designer, has been working in the field of graphics and web development for six years and at the moment besides collaborating with a web agency successfully manages her freelance activity under the name of mascara design. Like many freelancers she is used to handling more roles, ranging from paper graphics to the development of html and css codes; nonetheless this passion of hers remains, always and however, web graphics.

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