Drawing the line between inspiration and plagiarism

As creatives, it’s our job to take inspiration from everything around us, including the creations of other talented people in and around our field. It’s standard practice to explore other designers’ work when starting a new and exciting project, but it’s also vital to understand where inspiration ends and plagiarism begins.  

What is plagiarism? 

The definition of plagiarism is the act of stealing someone else’s work, words or ideas and passing them off as your own creations. It’s the cut-and-paste of the creative world, and it’s a great way to kiss any professional credibility you may have goodbye. 

Inspiration, on the other hand, is the spark that ignites the creative process – a process that results in something new and original rather than a copy or imitation. It’s like using a match to light a candle: the match helps the candle catch fire, but the candle isn’t a copy of the match – it’s a new and different kind of flame. 

Why is plagiarism such a bad thing? 

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and plagiarism is imitation taken to the extreme, you may wonder why plagiarism is such a bad thing. There are actually quite a lot of reasons – here are just a few.   

It’s stealing from people just like you 

Walking into a candy store and taking a chocolate bar without paying would be stealing, right? Well, going onto Google and taking an image, a logo, a character or a snippet of code is exactly the same thing. Just because creatives produce less tangible products (and have fewer security measures to protect them) doesn’t mean taking creative work product without payment or accreditation isn’t theft. 

Even worse, creatives aren’t like factories where one chocolate bar doesn’t mean much. Each concept, each artwork, each creative solution takes blood, sweat and tears to bring to life. Stealing that is far more personal than stealing objects or money – it’s taking a little piece of someone’s soul. 

It’s dishonest and disrespectful to your clients 

Our clients pay us for originality – for our ability to take inspiration from what’s been done before and bring something new to the table. Bringing a client (or even a lecturer) a design or an idea that’s been done before and pretending it’s unique isn’t just dishonest, it’s disrespectful, and can be labelled as fraud.  

(It can also open up a huge can of worms if you’re infringing on copyright – fair warning!) 

It’s selling yourself short 

Every creative has a crisis of confidence every now and then, and wondering whether you’re good enough, inventive enough, or skilled enough to do something is a regular occurrence for all of us. (It’s called Imposter Syndrome – look it up.) Part of the creative process is learning to push through that doubt to produce work you can really be proud of and boost your confidence as a result. 

By choosing to plagiarise someone else’s work, you’re essentially letting your doubts win and reinforcing the idea that you don’t have what it takes to do what you do. That’s no way to build a reputation or a career, or develop any kind of self-confidence or self-respect.  

How to avoid plagiarism 

The easiest way to avoid plagiarism is pretty obvious: don’t steal or copy other people’s work. Plagiarism isn’t always intentional, though – sometimes we copy things without even realising it.  

The best way to avoid this is to develop ideas through an iterative process, pulling inspiration from multiple sources, and perfecting your concept step by step. This way, you have a record of your thought process and project’s evolution, and can demonstrate exactly how you got to your end result. 

These anti-plagiarism tips may help: 

  • Never cut and paste 
  • Draw inspiration from ideas and concepts rather than exact phrases, imagery or layouts 
  • Use inspirational elements to support your work, not replace it 
  • Don’t use sources to “argue” for you – use your own voice and creative expression 
  • Avoid using stock imagery or pre-built elements as the core of your design 
  • Create, don’t “clone” 
  • Keep a record of your development process to be able to prove its originality 

Above all, remember that your creativity is valuable and unique. Don’t stifle it by hiding behind someone else’s work – trust yourself enough to express your own ideas.