Seeking Innovation from Copying

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I set out to write a post about stagnant design and innovation, tying my post about the shocking lightswitch and dumb outlet tester and the digital caliper design unchanged from 1982 to speculation and some insight on why we put up with such examples of zero-progress time and time again.

But in researching these concepts, I instead found another gem of how to innovate instead of just copy.

Now mind you, copying in itself is not always bad. But doing so without analyzing what you’re copying is. And if you haven’t made your copy better, then you shouldn’t be building anything, and I think it’s usually akin to theft.

So how do you copy in a valuable manner?

Go deeper. Study the creator of the thing you want to copy.

While you’re copying the object, try to discover why they built it that way. The real goal is not to copy their products, but to emulate their process.

And to do that, you have to go deeper still, as a designer called “Grfk Dzgn” wrote in a forum post:

“The trick as a student, or even a wanna be, is to avoid getting sucked into ignorance. The solution to that all too common result is to study the work of masters. Line by line, word by word. Don’t do as they did – copying won’t get you anywhere. Instead, seek what they sought.

So yes, start by copying the masters. But that is only the start. While you’re copying, try to get in their head. Use the same tools they did to build the thing. But go further. Study (and buy or copy if you have the time and resources) what they likely copied or studied before they built this object.

Then go deeper still. Read what they wrote. Read what co-workers, students, and competitors said about them. Somewhere in there, you will get a sense for what drove them, and perhaps understand what they sought.

But that’s still not enough to make large leaps of innovation, or even to copy them adequately. You have to understand why they sought what they did.

And that, I can not teach you how to find. You just have to seek it, and keep your mind open.

Author: Peter Sheerin

Peter Sheerin is best known for the decade he spent as the Technical Editor of CADENCE magazine, where he was the acknowledged expert in Computer-Aided Design hardware and software. He has a long-standing passion for improving usability of software, hardware, and everyday objects that is always interwoven in his articles. Peter is available for freelance technical writing and product reviews, and is exploring career opportunities in interaction design. His pet personal project is exploring the best ways to harmonize visual, tactile, and audible symbols for improving the effectiveness of alerting systems.

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