Why Great Designers Steal—and Are Proud of It

By Traci Lepore

Published: April 18, 2011

“Good artists copy; great artists steal.”—Pablo Picasso

“Creative people—if they are any good—constantly absorb input and stimuli that influences their own creative output. By nature, they imitate and play with the ideas of other creative people. It’s how they learn and grow.”

It is a fact of life that creative people—if they are any good—constantly absorb input and stimuli that influences their own creative output. By nature, they imitate and play with the ideas of other creative people. It’s how they learn and grow. It doesn’t matter whether you call this trait awareness, empathy, or even stealing. No innovative or successful design happens in a vacuum. Regardless of whether you realize it, what you see and interact with around you every day influences your work. Picasso just happened to be a master when it came to using stolen goods for the benefit of his own artistic pursuits.

My knowledge of Picasso has always been a bit limited. Modern art has never been my cup of tea. However, despite this, the Museu Picasso was on my list of things to see while in Barcelona on a recent trip. I’m open minded and willing to learn about new perspectives after all. But true excitement surged through me, when I realized a new exhibit called Picasso Looks at Degas was going to open while I was in town. Degas is one my ultimate favorites, so I figured this was going to be good and impatiently waited an hour in line to get in, capturing the photo shown in Figure 1. I didn’t yet know I was about find out how masterful Picasso truly was at the game of reinterpretation for innovation—or what some may call stealing.

Figure 1—Signage at the Museu Picasso

Signage at the Museu Picasso

Masters of Innovative Play

“They wanted to understand and learn from Degas’s work and, thus, enhance their own work. They wanted to be great artists, not just good artists. So they took copying to a new extreme and created a role-playing game called Playing Degas.

Picasso and his artist friends weren’t interested in just copying the work of Degas. That would have been easy enough, given the circumstances—he lived nearby and his work was accessible to them. Immersed in the artistic world of Paris at that time, they could easily have copied any of their peers’ work, as I’m sure many did. Instead, they wanted to understand and learn from Degas’s work and, thus, enhance their own work. They wanted to be great artists, not just good artists. So they took copying to a new extreme and created a role-playing game called Playing Degas.

Playing Degas was essentially an improv game in which an artist took on the role of Degas and attempted to verbally slaughter the others. In their attempt to steal from Degas, they engaged in a personification of his character to get at his underlying motives and intents. About this, Degas said, “They shoot us, [then] dig through our pockets.” Don’t worry. Degas meant his comment in a good way. He obviously had some understanding of innovation as well and admired the work of Picasso and his friends. Though this game may seem childish, it was a fantastic way of deriving a truly grounded and inspired interpretation of Degas’s work.

Clearly, Picasso not only greatly admired, but innovatively enhanced Degas’s ideas regarding style, medium, and subject matter, as you can see when looking at the works in Figure 2.

Figure 2—Degas’s Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, 1879-81, on the left; Picasso’s Standing Nude, 1907, on the right

Degas’s Little Dancer Aged Fourteen and Picasso’s Standing Nude

Yes, Picasso stole from Degas, but his work is far from a wholesale or even a mocking copy of Degas, as some have called his work. Picasso took things to a whole new level, creating the new school of art we know as Cubism. Picasso and his friends wanted to push the boundaries, making their own innovations in art. The important thing they realized was that to do so, they would have to take an active and empathetic role that would enable them to understand the art, the artists, and the consumers of art around them. Without Picasso’s having this realization, there may not have been Picasso as we know him.

Innovation Today

“Many arguments in today’s user experience design world center around the concept of the lone genius versus a user-centered approach to design and which leads to more innovative designs.”

Many arguments in today’s user experience design world center around the concept of the lone genius versus a user-centered approach to design and which leads to more innovative designs. These arguments resemble those about whether Picasso actually stole from Degas, the stimulus of games like Playing Degas spurred Picasso’s innovations in art, or it was simply his genius that enabled him to innovate.

Many cite Apple as the ultimate example of how the lone genius is the true master of innovation and believe user-centered design isn’t the creative way to go. A recent Fast Company article, “User-Led Innovation Can’t Create Breakthroughs: Just Ask Apple and Ikea,” represents one example of this viewpoint. The authors, Jens Martin Skibsted and Rasmus Bech Hansen, base their arguments on stories about Apple and Ikea specifically and make the case that user-led design can’t be innovative. In fact, their article argues that user-led design can even be harmful to the creative process. They say user insights can’t predict future demand; user-centered design processes stifle creativity; too much focus on users makes you miss opportunities to innovate; and finally, that user-centered processes lead to sameness. But they’ve got it all wrong.

It’s true that companies like Apple do not always do what many of us would consider to be traditional, user-centered research and design or even focus groups. But this doesn’t mean they don’t care about users and try to gain some empathetic understanding of their needs—or that such understanding doesn’t influence what they create. What we, as UX professionals, need to realize is that it is how you approach design that makes the difference. Like Picasso, maybe we could all benefit from a little innovative play, especially if it meant getting close to users. In essence, such play is about discovering the empathetic understanding that can drive truly innovative ideas.

Playing Degas in the Modern World

“An ethnographic approach such as Contextual Inquiry … lets you experience the real work practice of users.”

Jake Truemper said in his recent article “Where Innovation Belongs in User-Centered Design” that “users will often say something that is immediately contradicted by their actions, and any good user researcher knows to pay greater attention to what the user does than what they say. It’s also the researcher’s responsibility to try to understand the disparity. Since focus groups strongly focus on what users are saying, with no validation by actions, this probably isn’t the best technique to employ in most cases. Other user-centered techniques are more appropriate for strengthening an understanding of a user base.”

Truemper goes on to recommend an ethnographic approach such as Contextual Inquiry, which lets you experience the real work practice of users. He also recommends creating personas, which can be a great way of keeping an empathetic connection to users throughout the design process, when you aren’t actually with them. Both are great formal approaches, and I advocate and practice both. But as a performing artist, I know there are some informal techniques that can supplement these formal approaches and help you gain some empathetic understanding. Like Picasso with Degas, big innovators today understand this as well.

In a recent New York Times article about Steve Jobs, “Can Apple Find More Hits Without Its Tastemaker,” Steve Lohr described how employees at Apple stores provide the company with a powerful window into user habits and needs, even though it’s not conventional market research. “Steve visits the Apple store in Palo Alto frequently,” said a former consultant to Apple. To me, this doesn’t seem very different from Picasso’s exploring the city of Paris and delving deeply into the minds of the artists around him. Do you really think Apple could have invented the iPod without the Sony Walkman’s having come first, seeing how people used it, and observing the cultural shift that was happening because of it? I don’t.

Another article, “Master of Play,” written by Nick Paumgarten for the New Yorker, describes how Miyamoto, the creator of Mario Brothers, asks “the younger game creators to try playing the games they are making by switching their left and right hands. In that way, they can understand how inexperienced the first-timer is.” Actors engage in this kind of exercise frequently to help them develop characters with depth and true connection. Think how valuable this kind of exercise would be if you were developing the persona for a first-time user.

Broad exposure to stimuli is what you rely on when … your work requires you to come up with innovative ideas.

In the book The Creative Habit, Twyla Tharp talks about muscle memory—“the notion that after diligent practice and repetition of certain physical movements, your body will remember those moves years, even decades, after you cease doing them.” The idea that you can learn not only by watching, but also through movement is critical to a performance art like dance or theater, but as Miyamoto demonstrated, it can be important in user experience design as well. As Tharp says, “That’s the power of muscle memory. It gives you a path toward genuine creation through re-creation.”

In her early years, Tharp also spent much time copying artists she admired—think Playing Martha Graham—to learn a wider vocabulary of dance. She says, without this, she would not even be able to talk about or know what good dance is, never mind create innovative dance as a choreographer.

This is an important aspect people sometimes forget when they think about innovation: Broad exposure to stimuli is what you rely on when you talk about your discipline or your work requires you to come up with innovative ideas. These ideas don’t just come out of thin air. As I said in a previous column, “it is the recombination and transference of analogous thoughts and concepts that drives innovation.”

What Jobs, Miyamoto, and Tharp all have in common is that they have developed good habits of observation, maintained them through discipline, and supplemented their creative thinking with a range of inputs, leading them to have an empathetic understanding of customers, users, other creators, and culture. Even though they haven’t done traditional user research, they still gain understanding based on data and their inklings are in tune with the world around them. They know how to combine listening and action. This allows them to use their understanding to astound and delight us with their innovations, because they can call on those tools at any time.

Steal and Be Proud!

“Empathy isn’t hard to come by if you make the effort, and it can come in many forms.”

The Picasso Looks at Degas exhibit was such an amazing experience, not only for the artwork, but for Picasso’s lessons about innovative play and what empathy means to the creative process. Empathy isn’t hard to come by if you make the effort, and it can come in many forms. Only user-centered processes that don’t really help you get inside users’ heads and form an empathetic connection them—like focus groups—stifle innovation.

In a rebuttal to the Fast Company article I mentioned earlier, Sohrab Vossoughi put this nicely when he said, “Empathy with the user is a powerful tool for innovation. It gives you insight into the problem, but even more important, it makes you care about the outcome.” So I encourage you to get up, get moving, and walk that mile in your users’ shoes if you really want to come up with innovative solutions and designs. And by all means steal! I promise you will be proud of the results!

References

Hurst, Mark. “The Myth of the Lone Genius Innovator.” Good Experience, January 25, 2011. Retrieved April 02, 2011.

Lohr, Steve. “Can Apple Find More Hits Without Its Tastemaker? The New York Times, January 18, 2011. Retrieved April 11, 2011.

Paumgarten, Nick. “Master of Play: The Many Worlds of a Video-game Artist.” The New Yorker, December 20, 2010. Retrieved April 11, 2011.

Skibsted, Jens Martin, and Rasmus Bech Hansen. “User-Led Innovation Can’t Create Breakthroughs: Just Ask Apple and Ikea.” Fast Company, February 15, 2011. Retrieved April 02, 2011.

Tharp, Twyla. The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2003.

Truemper, Jack. “Where Innovation Belongs in User-Centered Design.” Johnny Holland Magazine, March 09, 2011. Retrieved April 02,2011.

Vossoughi, Sohrab. “Innovation Always Starts With Empathy: Look at Zipcar and Even Apple.” Fast Company, March 22, 2011. Retrieved April 11, 2011.

1 Comment

Great article. Have you ever tried reading and assembling a product from IKEA? It’s one of the worst experiences ever! Not to mention trying to navigate your way through one of their stores.

Their success aside, they definitely need to do some formal research. In their case, customers will deal with the friction of assembling a product in exchange for what they perceive to be a good price.

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