Why great artists have no need to steal


“Good artists copy, great artists steal.”

Maybe you’ve heard that before, maybe you haven’t. It’s a popular phrase among artists, poets, and general creative savants.

Popular possibly because of the time Steve Jobs used it during a video interview, though possibly because other creative heroes of our day-and-age have thrown around similar tidbits of seemingly excellent wisdom all about stealing.

But here’s the thing I’ve learned about copying or stealing ideas or pieces of existing work: it’s crap advice.

If your objective is to get something done quickly, then go ahead and copy or steal. On the other hand, if you’re trying to become a great creative, stealing isn’t going to get you there. Let’s quickly explore why.

I began my creative career as a freelance designer many, many years ago. Over time I’ve had had the great fortune of seeing how both really great professionals work, and how terrible designers work too.

Amateurs who excel at doing poor design work tend to share a surprising trait with one another: they copy design styles from the work of other designers that they look up to. Almost robotically even.

It’s a very peculiar thing to see a designer find something that they view as inspirational and then they practically re-create it (or, if possible, entirely steal it) for their own work.

I’ll look at the work of these designers who just follow trends for the sake of following trends and the quality of their work is always, without a doubt, leaps and bounds worse than that of the work that inspired them.

Why is that?

While the designer is undoubtedly getting their mechanical abilities finely-tuned by re-creating (or “stealing”) the style of the work that inspires them, what they’re missing out on is any understanding of what makes the inspirational work effective.

It’s like trying to paint, and doing so successfully, without understanding how or why certain colors blend well together while others don’t. You may end up with a decent painting, but could you create your own, using the same techniques but your own ideas?

Without understanding the intent and thought-process behind a creative work, we can’t explicitly say what it is that makes the work… well, work.

The greatest artists do start their careers by copying and stealing the work and ideas of those who came before them. But after a while they have to start thinking for themselves, start experimenting with different techniques and forms and subjects.

This is true for any creative industry. There are writers, musicians, film makers, chefs, architects, and more, all who want to re-create something they once saw, or heard, or tasted, or experienced. But in their straight-forward re-creation they entirely miss the most important part of the process: understanding why something works, or why the creator chose to do something a certain way.

These aren’t things you can learn by reading them in a book. These are the things you only learn when you attempt to create your own inspiration, your own masterpieces, using nothing but the tools required and your brain.

Understanding those basic narratives, of why a certain color or technique or shape or sound was used in an inspirational work the way it was, is what makes the amateur into the professional.

It doesn’t work the other way around.

Yes, by copying you gain mechanical knowledge (how to use the tools you need to know how to use), but without finding your own path and experimenting with your own work, you’ll never create the type of work that inspires others, that makes those who come after you want to copy your work.

Great artists know this.

So the next time you see something that really inspires you, or the next time you encounter something that screams at you to re-create it, remember that a lot of thinking – and possibly experimenting and making of mistakes – took place to make it so.

There are no shortcuts, like stealing or using other’s ideas, to achieve creative fulfillment. There’s only showing up every day and doing the hard work.