Imitation as a Tool
14 February 2014 — ”Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” We’ve all heard this, it’s how the level headed react to “copycats” or “ripoffs.” The truth is imitation is natural. We may not like to admit it but we’re all skilled imitators. Without it there would be no way to talk with one another or possess similar value systems.
There’s a famous chapter in Richard Dawkin’s The Selfish Gene where he coins the term ‘meme’ to explain a non-biological form of evolution — an evolution of culture from one ‘survival machine’ to another. In the beginning of the chapter he uses saddlebacks, a New Zealand bird, as an example. At the time saddlebacks collectively possessed a total of about nine distinct songs. There were dialects depending on where the birds spent most of their time but as birds were born they would adopt the songs of their neighbors. The ‘song pool’ basically stayed the same but occasionally something rare happened — a new song was born — by mistake! While imitating other birds the transmission wasn’t always perfect, a mistake created an anomaly thus breathing new life into a slightly altered song.
After reading this chapter I had to take a moment to process. What it means is most of what we consider “new” or “original” is really just an anomaly in the transmission of what we already know. The creative process is a mixed bag of mistakes discovered during the process of imitation.
This leads me to believe imitation is possibly the single most important tool in the creative process. Want to play like Roger Federer? Practice his every move. Want to write with the same gusto as Hemingway? Study every one of his books. In love with the performance of Calder’s mobiles? Study his process and buy some wire. Think Flappy Bird is cool? Learn SpriteKit and start coding.
Imitation is indeed flattering but it’s also a means to understanding and more importantly an opportunity for making mistakes — mistakes that open up whole new worlds. People always ask me, “how do I become a better designer” or “how can I be more creative?” Here’s my answer: identify the work you love, study it, imitate it, remix it, and most importantly make mistakes along the way.