Fran Rosa

25 October 2016


Steal An Original: Inspiration And Copy

En español: Roba un original: Inspiración y copia

Left: Grammo-grafik Poster by Gottlieb Soland
Right: Jazzaldia Poster Proposal by myself

Every designer in the world has copied because that is a great way to learn. Mimicking those we admire let us build our skills and improve our craft.

Good artists copy, great artists steal

Pablo Picasso

In fact that quote has been attributed to Picasso, Faulkner and Stravinsky, and seems to be a modification of what T. S. Eliot wrote in 1920 “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal” based on a sentence published by W. H. Davenport Adams thirty years before (source).

It is common to find misattributed or modified quotes, and it is hard to find original sources online. It may be a problem if you rely solely on online sources because not only you will not have the proper reference, but also because you are learning wrong and false references. And same happens with visual culture.

Let’s set aside the fact relying on online sources is a very poor experience of the visual culture on art and graphic design artifacts, because for decades people have had access to art on printed books mostly. Not everyone can afford to travel the world to see original art masterpieces and enjoy their aura.

There is a problem with online information, and it is that it replicates itself again and again, and like living organisms mutations show up after many generations, a process that online may take only a few hours. Well documented sources with proper attribution and context lose their original value and end up being just image reproduction that also may contain errors in names, titles and dates.

Left: Poster for Musica Viva by Josef Müller-Brockmann
Right: Swissted Poster by Mike Joyce

And if it may be hard to get reliable sources on a painting of the 18th century, graphic design can be a nightmare, because not only there are fewer reliable resources but also people do not usually go to the original sources but versions of it.

Both examples used to illustrate are not plagiarism, because both are intended as an homage to the style, but neither of them adds anything to the original. Mike Joyce’s version is not intended to be a copy or a version of Josef Müller-Brockmann’s poster, just a recreation of the style. But typesetting is less interesting, and even adding more color composition is more regular and boring. Jessica Svendsen is a version of the original with same text information, but it just remove tension and composition dynamism without adding anything new resulting in a more boring result.

Left: Poster for Zurich Town Hall by Josef Müller-Brockmann
Right: Poster Reinterpretation by Jessica Svendsen

Comparison is obviously not fair because on one hand is not easy to be better than Müller-Brockmann on poster design, and on the other they are both trying to mimic his style and it is impossible to be better at being Müller-Brockmann than Müller-Brockmann himself.

But it is an example of how if when you learn the swiss style your references are not the original but modern versions of it, or a mixing of both original and versions, you may be losing some important aspects of the original tone and style, and of course you may be losing the opportunity of learning directly from a master of his field.

Left: Lenzig Publishing House Book Cover by Aleksandr Rodchenko
Right: You Could Have It So Much Better Cover by Franz Ferdinand

I am not making a case against copying. In fact I would recommend you to read Austin Kleon’s ‘Steal Like An Artist’. Just be precise when documenting yourself, or looking for inspiration, in order to improve your visual culture and have proper references. It is the only way to avoid being just the copy of a copy of a copy.


Ironically, I misattributed poster on the cover image of this post to Josef Müller-Brockmann when it is Gottlieb Soland’s, it is now correctly attributed.

I did not make any critique on the comparison of my poster proposal and Gottlieb Soland’s because it is obvious mine is far less interesting as a composition, and also because I had not seen Soland’s poster before making that proposal. Just added something I did to make clear I was not trying to point the finger at anyone.

I am also going to add an example of a Müller-Brockmann poster compared to Soland’s. In this case, even being the composition so different there is little relation between them, there is a pretty similar concept, but Müller-Brockmann approach goes further beyond Soland’s and it is a good example of how making something based on previous work of others may be an improvement. Soland’s composition is superb, but Müller-Brockmann achieves a greater impact and works better as a poster, in my opinion.

Left: Grammo-Grafik Poster by Gottlieb Soland
Right: Anthologie de Musique Suisse by Josef Müller-Brockmann