what’s wrong with my designs?

eat sleep design SitePoint t-shirtI occasionally get emails from people wanting advice on how to be successful in the web industry.

I’m no expert, mind you, but I’ve been through a fair bit myself and I’ve seen other people go through a lot more, good and bad.

I’m happy to pass on what I’ve learned.

Mostly, I reply personally and in private to these correspondents but sometimes one pops up that seems worth sharing. This is one.

Hello,

I’m a web designer and i have questions about web designing.

When you want to design a website (UI), do you check another portfolios on the web just for getting ideas? not copy!

What another professional designers do?

Is it against with copyright law? or is it illegal?

At end, Here is my portfolios: www.oreallove.deviantart.com What are you think about my design?

What’s wrong with my designs?

Here is my response:

Thanks for your email.

With regard to your first question, the line between inspiration and plagiarism in web design is a matter of judgement, as finely balanced as it is in any venture that focuses on the communication of ideas. Just as with poets, novelists, playwrights, artists, sculptors, scientists, inventors, interior designers, journalists, academics and anyone who ever “made something up”, web designers can easily be accused of copying others’ work.

Personally, I am constantly inspired by the work of others. I don’t ever set out to copy, but I am quite sure it is possible to point to aspects of my work and identify an inspirational source. Whether that is a problem is a matter of degree, and determinable intent.

If I set out to convey an original idea and in the process use a set of words that have also been used by someone else, it may not be plagiarism in my mind, but a court may find that I have been influenced by the other work. If the author of the other work can establish that I had been exposed to their work, a court would probably find it is plagiarism. This is the principle under which George Harrison was prosecuted for plagiarism with his My Sweet Lord. He conceded that he may have heard the song He’s So Fine before he wrote his song, and that was enough for a court to find he may have been influenced and thus My Sweet Lord copied the other song. In other words, copying doesn’t even have to be intentional to get you into trouble.

The other example I look to, however, is that offered by the quote attributed to Isaac Newton, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”, by which he meant his considerable achievements would not have been possible without the work of scientists who came before him. I know in my design work, I have stood on the shoulders of people like Zeldman, Bowman, Meyer, Stocks, Boulton, Pieters and dozens of others. I don’t think I have plagiarised anyone.

So, my answer to you is, “Yes, I look at other designers’ work all the time, and I actively seek inspiration from it”. You have to judge for yourself whether you are copying anyone – ultimately, your own conscience is a better ruler than copyright law, but you have to be aware that others may see it differently, especially if it’s their ideas being copied.

With regard to your own work, you are clearly very accomplished in both the technical and aesthetic aspects of web design. What you need to take this to a level of a profitable business is to work with more clients who will stretch you and focus your talents on how to present content. Ultimately, to make a living out of web design, you need to be a service provider. Now, I know there’s an age old conflict in there: “How do I get more clients if I can’t get more clients?”

For me, the answer was – and still is – to do pro bono work, typically for someone who otherwise couldn’t afford it, like community groups or small businesses. By executing designs for some clients for free, I am able to build my portfolio of completed designs, demonstrate my ability to work to a brief, extend my skills by trying something new in a low risk environment and – and this is the bonus – lay the ground for turning some of those pro bono clients into paying clients. This has been very successful for me over the years and I still do it now.

This will also give you a single key skill for a freelance web designer: the ability to market yourself. Most of my clients have come about because I talked them into it: I embraced their needs, figured out a way to meet them, explained how I would go about things and then executed my designs with as much style and effectiveness as I could muster. The more you do it, the better you get.

Note that when I aim to fill a client brief, I always look at their competitors or sites that serve a similar purpose. I’m looking for the type of content, visual design and functionality that I can or should incorporate into the work for my client, to make them competitive.

This is where your first question comes into things again: by aggregating ideas from different sources, I’m less likely to stand accused of copying any one in particular. If I do copy something directly – typically more in code than in visuals – I acknowledge it by including comments and links to the source. Website visitors won’t see that but a potentially aggrieved designer will.

Ultimately, it is you who will know whether you have nefariously copied or been justifiably inspired by someone else’s work. Trust yourself not to copy, and never stop being inspired by others’ work.

Good luck (because that’s also useful).

My experience is the not the same as yours, of course. You may feel that undertaking pro bono work is a trap – I know many people feel like that. Would you give different advice?

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