Long ago, when I wanted to be a comic book artist, I imitated the art styles of my favorite comic book artists. When I started to write, I imitated the writers I admired. Creative types, be it writers or product designers, all get their start by imitating those who spark their imaginations. But imitation is dangerous if you can't make the leap beyond it.
Imitation is an easy trap product designers can easily get stuck in. The desire to be the next Facebook or the next [insert a popular social media product here] is tempting. But as we've said before, imitation is suicide. Yet, product designers continue to be dead serious about imitating what's popular and the argument has been made that they should be. Or has it?
Imitation is Only A Baby Step
Take for instance Oded Shenkar's book "Copycats". He argues that imitation is just as important as innovation. Companies, such as McDonalds and Wal-Mart, who imitate are more profitable than those they copied, he says. Well, wait a sec. So does that mean we all should be copying and nothing more? Not really.
If you read between the lines of this interview with Shenkar, what he really is talking about is innovation by any other name. Particularly when he says:
Think Wal-Mart. Its founder admitted that it had borrowed most of its practices from its predecessors but then improved on them and combined them into a winning formula.
In other words, Wal-Mart started by copying defunct discount-store Korvette, but later took the next step, transforming its business and innovating on what had come before.
New York filmmaker Kirby Fergusson, who has just finished his four-part series on creativity, "Everything is Remixed," puts it another way. He says copying is where you get to know your creative turf, but it's only the first, baby step in the creative process. Check out this talk Fergusson gave at last year's GEL conference on that idea below and notice how imitation is not enough when it comes to creativity:
Sure, the next big innovation is probably 10 or 20 years old. But it's not enough to simply imitate those old inventions and give them a new name. Like what Steve Jobs did with Xerox's computer and mouse, we have to see the opportunities that were missed and improve upon them. We have to transform and leap beyond imitation. That's when innovation truly begins.