Every UX/UI design project begins with a search for inspiration.

Let’s say you’re designing a login page for a mobile app.

Some of the parameters are already set: design patterns, industry trends, and the unique branding of the company you’re designing for. But after browsing the internet for new ideas to kickstart your creative thinking, you’ve only come across one design that really stands out from the rest. 

And now you’re wondering if you can imitate the design as an iteration in your own work, or if that’s blatant plagiarism.

What is Plagiarism in Design?

By definition, plagiarism happens when you take someone else’s work and claim it as your own.

While many of us may have learned about plagiarism when working on high school research papers, it’s an ever-present issue, particularly in the world of design.

Why Do People Plagiarize in Design? 

There are many different reasons why designers plagiarize, ranging along a spectrum from innocent coincidences to intentional stealing.

There are unconscious influences that can come into play, like having seen a design before and then imitating it. In this case, you might not be aware that there’s a doppelganger design floating around in the world that predates your work.

On the other end of the spectrum, a designer might be tempted to copy part or all of an existing design if there’s a hard and fast deadline that has to be met. Or, to spruce up a mockup, they might steal a bespoke photograph or two, without paying the required license fee.

Examples of Design Plagiarism 

Most designers feel the pressure to come up with something unique and aesthetically pleasing, while still adhering to established patterns and trends.

But it’s important to be conscious of how you are integrating other design assets or inspiration into your own work to avoid some of the more blatant UX/UI design plagiarism scenarios like:

  • Using someone else’s UX copy in your own designs without permission or attribution
  • Copying original media, banners, and logos without permission or attribution
  • Using or copying someone else’s UI kit without permission or attribution
  • Including bespoke photography in your designs without attribution or paying the required license fee

While you’ll always use some pre-designed elements in your work (like typography or photography), you can avoid plagiarism by always checking the license or use requirements for your design elements, and including attribution where appropriate. 

The Difference Between Design Plagiarism and Copywork

Oddly enough, many artists and designers are encouraged to practice their skills by recreating an existing work as closely as possible. This is a well-known technique called copywork, and is an effective learning exercise whether you’re a UI/UX designer or a famous architect like Tadao Ando

A UX/UI designer might take a mobile app interface and recreate it pixel for pixel. This allows them to practice basic elements like grid layouts, or navigational requirements for different mobile devices.

Copywork can only take you so far in your design career. Duplicating another person’s UI kit might be a good exercise, but it doesn’t help you build the skills you would build by creating your own UI kit from scratch. 

Pro Tip: Want to practice design iterations? Head over to Dribbble to check out your favorite UIs and try to copy them, pixel for pixel. You can add your own twist and then rebound it to give credit to the original designer.

Copywork Scenarios in the Workplace

To be fair, copywork still happens on some level in the professional world. 

When you start a new job as a designer, you might find that you need to recreate design files. (I recently had to recreate a logo for a local business when building their website, since they had somehow lost the original vector image.) You’ll also have to figure out how to align your new designs with what’s been done previously for that company, for the sake of consistency.

So why isn’t this considered plagiarism?

It’s all in the fine print: when you work with a company, you’ll often sign a contract that specifies the company, not the employee, owns the assets created on the job. (Freelance designers will have to consult with an attorney to create a similar contract to make it very clear who owns the design assets). So even though another designer might have come up with the original logo design, the company can dictate what happens with the finalized design asset.

If in doubt, always consult with a legal professional.

5 Tips to Avoid Plagiarism in Design

1. Consult Multiple Sources for Inspiration

If you only seek inspiration from a single source, it will be much harder to avoid plagiarism habits. Instead, drawing from multiple sources can make it much harder for the original inspiring designs to appear identifiably in your finished work.  

2. Analyze Your Design Inspiration

During the initial search for design inspiration, analysis is key. What is great about a particular design? How can you improve it? How can you make the design more useful, elegant, or efficient? 

Melissa, a UX Academy Foundations student, shared how analysis helped her to think more broadly about how she solved a particular design problem:

In UX Academy Foundations, I found that it was really hard to learn the skill of finding inspiration in the work of others without it turning into the ONLY way I was able to think about the assignment. I found it was really helpful when I spoke with my mentor and he told me that I could think about each section of each assignment as a problem, and look at the various ways that other people solved the same problem or problems similar to it.

3. Consult Your Team

UX/UI design is a team sport.

Taking the time to speak with users, developers, and the product manager will give you a more holistic understanding of what, specifically, needs to be addressed through your design work. Even if you start with a less-than-original mockup, you’ll likely find that the natural iterative process of designing within a team helps you to hone your problem-solving skills and create more original, unique UX solutions. 

4. Compare Your Final Design with the Inspiration Sources

Always compare your final design with the inspiration sources. Is it easy to find duplicates with the naked eye? Are they too similar? If so, change things up.

(You can also use a reverse image search on Google to quickly cover some ground. It might not catch everything, but it can help to give you context on more specific design assets like illustrations.)

5. Always Give Credit to Your Inspiration Sources

When creating work inspired by the work of another, it’s important to give credit to the original work whenever possible.

For example, in a portfolio or design school project, you might include some of the issues that were brought up during a design critique, as well as how you utilized this feedback to arrive at your final design.

Conclusion

UX design is a field of lifelong learning, where research and sourcing inspiration are a valued part of the design process. Plagiarism can be a tempting way to try and “rush” the design process, but it will always deliver negative results for your own career development. The long game of success is one that elevates both your inspiration sources and your final, unique designs.

Are you looking for a way to move into the UX/UI field? Our UX Academy Foundations helps you kickstart your career by teaching how to utilize copywork and other design techniques in a way that will help your skill set moving forward.

author avatar

Maria Myre

Designlab

Content Specialist

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