Confession: I am not a very good designer. I feel like I can animate the fool out of someone else’s good design, and I can possibly hack together something in a pinch. While I’m actively learning about design, I did not go to design school, and design is not hard wired into me. I just wanted to make that clear before we move on.
A GOOD IDEA
In the frenzied push to create new art (still or motion) our ideas come from many different places. We can find inspiration in life or the world around us, through our own research of works printed or on the web, and from a boss or client who has seen something he or she likes. You might be able to deduce from my earlier confession that the ideas don’t come flowing out of my head like streams of fresh water so, many times, I rely on inspiration. I even have a folder in every project I create for things that inspire me.
I love good design, and I create motion graphics and short films for a living. Therefore, I can be very interested in using someone else’s design (read: taking something not created by me or our designer at Igniter) in my work. This puts me — like I’m sure it does many of you — at a fork in the road.
NOTE: I understand that it can be especially tricky if you work for someone who tends to find interesting designs and then passes them along to you expecting that you’ll keep everything and just change the wording.
Now, I can’t pretend that I haven’t just ripped off someone’s design (colors and all) at some point. I have done that. And I’m not trying to point fingers with this post. I simply want to be a voice of encouragement to those who design, animate or even make films.
We don’t have to steal or copy the work of others.
When I see another work of art or design that would suit my next project, whether it was given to me or I just saw it online, the piece is now in my head. And whether I was instructed to “use that design” or it’s just so wonderful I can’t move forward until I make my own version of it, I have a choice to make. It’s a tough choice, but it’s one I should thoughtfully consider. When it comes down to it, I think we have four options.
OPTION 1: STEAL
I can do what I really want to do and just take that design or idea, change out the text, and run it in my church service where, I’m pretty confident, no one has ever seen the original or ever will. It’s even posited that the great Pablo Picasso once said, “Good artists copy, great artists steal.” This argument, however, needs to be dissected a bit to understand its meaning.
I recently read an online article by Shelley Esaak actually titled “Good Artists Borrow, Great Artists Steal.” In this article, Esaak breaks down this concept very succinctly: “To me, it means the difference between aping and assimilating; between copying and internalizing; between being unoriginal and innovative … It’s only the great artists who manage to take things to new heights, in new directions.”
I’m pretty confident that I don’t need to throw in a Jesus Juke here, so suffice it to say that stealing someone’s work is lazy and sloppy and not the foot I need to be putting forward as a designer, no matter the time constraints or requests made of me. Oh, and I didn’t even mention the legal ramifications of such a thing. (See Christian Copyright Solutions for more info.)
AN EXAMPLE — Looking at the Johnny and Chachi Killer Tips videos we have created at Igniter Media is a good way to know if you’re taking advantage. I’ve got a check list for the Killer Tips videos below. If you can check off any of the following for your own video, I’d consider it stealing:
- You script is either word-for-word or uses unmistakably similar dialogue
- Your actors resemble and talk like Johnny and Chachi
- The title of your video includes the words “Killer” and “Tips”
- At any point your actors argue about and then end up dancing through the titles
- The setting and shots of the original video are clearly recreated
Believe it or not, several churches have made videos that would fall into that category. We love when churches make their own videos, but we’re not wild about the idea of churches stealing elements (dialogue, music, mannerisms, etc.) from the works of others. And it’s not about us — it’s about media professionals in the Church challenging one another to do our very best work.
OPTION 2: COPY
I guess it could be said that copying a work only makes me a “good” artist and not a “great” one. After all, if you can tell what I’ve copied, I haven’t innovated enough on top of my source of inspiration, have I? I can take a secular design and make it “Christian” by swapping out the major design elements with crosses or angels. I can set the color scheme to match that of my ministry or sermon series. This is closer to paying homage to the work, because it’s likely very obvious that I’ve intentionally copied an existing concept, but a coating of Bible references and church context on top of someone else’s design doesn’t make it original or even come close to being a derivative work. The same thing goes for video and music.
“But wait!” I say to myself. I also wonder if copying someone’s look or design could be a way for me to improve myself. After all, copying someone will push me to figure out how to recreate their treatments or designs, ergo I will improve myself while ending up with a solid design in the end! Problem solved! Almost. I do want to get better, but I still have to consider that copyright is an issue.
Something I haven’t even considered yet is using the end result of someone’s tutorial or template. That can be a great place to start, but when I execute a design straight from a tutorial, my end product looks just like that of every other person who has done the tutorial. There is no originality. So, if I post my sermon graphic on Vimeo, I just might get ripped to shreds by anyone else who has seen the tutorial. That devalues my reputation and the reputation of my church/ministry and Jesus all at the same time.
AN EXAMPLE — Let’s examine what it might look like to copy the Killer Tips videos:
- There are two guys. I’m pretty sure Igniter Media doesn’t have the patent on making videos with two guys so you could do that.
- Dancing. The reason we use dancing is because it’s silly and unexpected. Dancing is not the only silly or unexpected thing you could do on video — I’m thinking failed skateboard tricks, leaping into a pile of beanbags, or pies to the face might do the trick.
- Contrary Information. Providing bad advice can be done without calling it Killer Tips.
- Structure. Maybe you want to give good (as opposed to contrary) information about an upcoming event, so you simply copy the structure of a Killer Tips video without stealing specific elements from the original.
If a video you make is a clear-cut and upfront copy of someone else’s video, well, you haven’t done any harm. But at the same time, your video wouldn’t exist at all (or wouldn’t be moderately effective) without someone else’s dedication to creativity. We don’t want to position ourselves as baby birds who wait for their mother to go out and find something original and then bring it back to the nest. Do we?
OPTION 3: BE ORIGINAL
I could start from scratch and slog my way through the design process! Holy smokes, I personally get tired-head from even thinking that. I don’t know fonts or color palates or layout. The endless possibilities cause me to sit in front of my computer doing nothing for a long time. Even if I come up with a design, I’m not sure it will be worth anything, so I’m back to looking at designs done by others until I find something I would love to steal.
There are as many ideas for design and videos and songs as there are stars in the sky. Sure, many good pieces of art share similarities, but they don’t all have to be copies of each other. Something that helps me is to find someone who is good at being creative with something like design and have that person create the original piece that I will then animate.
AN EXAMPLE — Our Father’s Day video “Better With Dads” is a concept that started when I was joking around on the phone with my old college roommate! We were yucking it up and the idea just started taking shape.
CHOICE 4: BE INSPIRED
Even when we aspire to be completely original, it’s likely that our finished work will be influenced by the work of others and the established conventions of the medium. What I mean is that even when we make original videos, we’re not the first to use particular camera techniques or typography or a stock music bed. With this in mind, I am inspired by a couple of words in Shelley Esaak’s aforementioned article: assimilate, internalize, and innovate.
Each beautiful design or video will probably have one particular element that is interesting to me — the medium, the colors, the animation techniques. Also, each motion graphics or design tutorial on the Web has nuggets in it, whether it’s a design tip, a hot key, or an animation technique. It’s these things that I look forward to. The expectation I put on myself is that I will work through a tutorial a time or two and build on my foundation as a designer and animator or that I will play around with a design technique I see in someone else’s work until I feel like I can apply it to something else.
It’s a lot like cooking ingredients. When I learn how each ingredient works with the others, I can begin to mix and match them into new creations. They might even be the same techniques that everyone else has, but understanding how they work — and how they work together — will give my designs and animations a freshness that is still based on the sum of a number of inspirational sources. The one-time Patent Office clerk Albert Einstein said, “The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.” Like I said earlier, if you can effectively hide your sources, you’ve demonstrated a layer of originality that fits with your identity as an artist.
One last note: You can even be inspired by things you have previously created! Keep a folder — physical or on your computer — of ideas and designs from past project that didn’t make the cut. Go back to that folder when you need inspiration. If you’re going to copy from someone, why not start with yourself?
Whenever you face down the creative dilemma, my hope is that you’ll consider your options carefully. I know what it means to come face to face with the desire to start with someone else’s work and go from there. But I also know how rewarding it is to create something that, even if it has been influenced or inspired by others, is truly original.