Use the Ideas, but Make it Your Own

Like many, I hate to see mindless copying or stealing of visual designs. When it comes to interface elements though, I feel exactly the opposite. I want to see sites reusing bits and pieces of interfaces. It’s key to improving the usability of the web as a whole.

I have a problem when people steal visual design. Visual design is somebody’s signature, and copying it is akin to forging their professional signature. As in art, there will be periods of web design where many designers will adopt similar styles, and that’s to be expected. However, to copy a design almost entirely is pathetic. Period. When it comes to interface elements and concept though, I have an entirely different opinion.

If I implement some interface element and it seems like a good idea for your site or application, I strongly encourage anyone and everyone to use it. Have at it. That’s not to say the ideas I write about are always correct, but I lay no claim whatsoever to the bits and pieces of what I create. That’s a huge part of the reason I invest so much time sharing my real-world experiences and ideas. I want them to be used to make the internet a better place.

Let’s look at automobiles for a moment. I don’t think anyone would argue that a Kia is equivalent to a Lexus. They’re at opposite ends of the styling and quality spectrum. However, beyond the styling, they both have four round wheels with tires, a round steering wheel, the radio or navigation head unit in the middle to the right of the steering wheel, gauges behind the steering wheel just below the dash, sticks coming off of the columns that control windshield wipers and the sort, and gas and break pedals in the same locations relative to each other.

The list goes on, but clearly, the automobile industry would be a mess if companies been allowed to patent or lay exclusive claim any of those concepts. Those elements are shared simply because that’s the way that happens to make the most sense. And despite those incredibly important foundational interface elements being consistent, all of the automotive companies continue to strive for innovation and differentiate themselves from each other.

Since sharing my posts on the issue tracking interface design, I’ve received a fair amount of emails of people bringing sites to my attention where people have implemented the ideas I’ve written about. Some are so similar to my work that it’s a bit disconcerting, but others are only using the concept to improve something that is clearly an original creation.

Either way, I’m generally just happy to see everyone doing some little part to make the internet easier and more enjoyable to use. I see interface elements as implicitly open source. It’s important that we, as an industry do move towards some common ground. While we’re marching closer everyday, I feel that one of the best ways to do that is for all of us to start sharing interface elements that make sense in multiple contexts.

That said, just because we all use buttons, web forms, and tabs, doesn’t mean there’s not room for innovation. There’s a fine line between stagnating on a reusable concept and trying to innovate. Just because something can be reused, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to improve upon it while we’re at it.

We’d all be better off if we stopped trying to reinvent the wheel. We’d also be a lot better off if we didn’t blindly recycle every interface element that had its own blog post. I’m definitely not advocating the wholesale recycling of pages from web sites or applications, but I strongly believe it makes sense for us, as interface creators, to be happy when we start to see appropriate reuse of our ideas.