Copying for the purpose of education

Rachel C's picture

I have read several forum posts on the subject of copying, all generally focusing on the negative aspects of it. But isn't learning through copying of great value? Isn't the appropriation of old design to create new an important part of cultural evolution? Surely it's how the understanding gained from copying is then used that issues of copyright can arise.

I have been invited to run a workshop at my old university and want to base it on the use of copying as a learning tool. Can anyone suggest examples of appropriation being effectively used? Or any further reading on the positive aspects of copying?

I have so far read and

butterick's picture

I imagine you'll find unlimited examples both supporting and refuting your claims, which is a sign that your claims are too broadly stated.

It would be more educational to advance a thesis about where, in a particular design discipline, the line between appropriate and inappropriate copying should be drawn.

Also, the issue of copying (as an activity) is distinct from copyright (as a legal construct) — be wary of merging them.

Thomas Phinney's picture

What Matthew said.

Can you explain more of what you mean by copying?

For example, I know a few people (and I am one) who think that trying to digitize an existing font from printed samples is a useful way to learn some things about letterforms and digital fonts, before drawing one’s own type from scratch.

On the other hand, simply downloading font files from a server is not very educational.



oldnick's picture

Isn't the appropriation of old design to create new an important part of cultural evolution?

Your choice of the term "appropriation" is telling, because it's more likely to be used to describe activities such as plagiarism or outright theft. "Re-purposing" or "reviving" might be better choices, because this is what font revivalists do; we do not "appropriate" old designs. We lovingly re-craft them to new media, and almost universally pay homage to the original creators. The process is not so much cultural evolution as it is cultural archaeology: re-introducing historical cultural trends into the mainstream, in order to enrich our typographic vocabulary.

Chris Dean's picture

First, the students need to be informed of the ramifications of plagiarism (and copyright as I read what has been posted in the time it took me to compose this).

I was once given an assignment to design a piece emulating the style of a specific designer of our choice. When presenting our work to the studio, we were required to give a brief biography of the designer and examples of their work to back up our solution. In doing so we learned some history, cultural context, politics &c. as well as search and presentation skills. All important aspects of the assignment. A simple “change the font” solution would obviously not deserve a mark. Think Müller-Brockmann’s Der Film set in Garamond. Keep in mind this was only a single project in a four year program. Anyone who continued to practice this way would simply be removed from the program, or fail due to their own ineptitude.

As long as the class/project is framed in such a way as “this is an exercise in developing search skills, learning about the history of design(ers), the cultural context that influenced their work, the history of design and presentation skills” I think you’re OK. But churning out a group of students who simply scour fffound is doing them a disservice.

I often use the analogy of MDs taking advantage of constantly updated drug databases that contain information about the medicines side effects and their interactions in an effort to remove human error but if all they did was base their decisions upon previous research the practice of medicine would not advance due to a lack of original thought. I dub this dilemma as “search versus solve.”

Ultimately, I believe teaching students how to think for themselves is a no-brainer (pun intended).

Frank ADEBIAYE's picture

It's a bit old-school, don't you think?

JamesM's picture

"Copying" is a loaded word that implies things like plagarism, copyright violation, etc. Is that what you meant? Or are you just referring to the common practice of being influenced by the work of others?

Rachel C's picture

Thank you very much for your comments, they've been of great help.

Starting from the top and working down:

The focus of the workshop will be editorial design. I agree it's important to distinguish the issue of copying from copyright - perhaps half the workshop will be on copying, half on copyright.

I mean copying to mean very much your first example - to digitise an existing font from print samples - although in my instance it will more likely be to digitise a layout.

There's nothing educational in downloading font files from a server.

Thank you for bring my attention to my choice of terms. 'Appropriation' is not the right word for the message I wish to convey - 'reinterpreting' is perhaps closer. This extract from Susan Blackmore's book feels relevant to my thoughts:

“The advent of imitation was, I suggest, the turning point in hominid evolution... All evolutionary processes depend on an accurate copying mechanism, and that mechanism tends to evolve towards higher and higher fidelity. Imitation may not have started as very accurate at all, but it was still the essential copying process without which cultural evolution could never have taken off. Only once human imitation was sufficiently accurate (and we do not yet know exactly how accurate that is) could memetic evolution begin. Once it began, increasing creativity was inevitable.

Blackmore, Susan ‘Memes minds and imagination’ In Imaginative Minds (Proceedings of the British Academy 2008) Ed by Ilona Roth. Oxford University Press

Christopher (and Frank)
I think we're running along the same lines! The exercise is not about cutting and pasting; it will be about deconstructing a piece of work to understand the process involved in creating it. On the whole the course is highly self-directed and free thinking which I feel could benefit from a one-off, old fashioned workshop.

oldnick's picture

The advent of imitation was, I suggest, the turning point in hominid evolution.

I suppose one one posit that the advent of "monkey see, monkey do" is THE seminal moment in hominid evolution: certainly, political operatives and advertising execs depend on thoughtless imitative behavior to further their agendas, and would agree with the premise wholeheartedly. However, since it appears that no one can agree on precisely what memetic evolution is--or that it even exists--I doubt that much stock should be placed in Ms. Blackmore's observations...

Té Rowan's picture

The exercise is not about cutting and pasting; it will be about deconstructing a piece of work to understand the process involved in creating it.

Incidentally, that's yet another process that's being derided and tarred by high-rent IP cops. Y'see, what you described is better known as reverse-engineering.

bowerbird's picture

oldnick said:
> "monkey see, monkey do"
> ...
> thoughtless imitative behavior

"watch one, do one, teach one."


Chris Dean's picture

Watch One, Do One, Teach One.

Food for though (pun intended): “If you give a man a fish you feed him for a day. If you teach a man to fish you feed him for a lifetime.”

~ Chinese proverb

Each year I conduct a small series of lectures, workshops and poster sessions designed to teach undergraduate science students principles of good design to help them design better conference posters. Every year it is obvious when a student has simply used someone from the department’s template and re-populated it with their own content, compared to someone who made an effort to come up with original thought and solutions based upon what they had learned from class. This is even more obvious when you ask them to rationalize and defend their design decisions. Someone upsetting and I certainly see part of this as a personal failure as I am a firm believer in the principle, something my father (a doctor who taught, lectured, supervised &c students for decades) always used to say, “‘tis a poor teacher who does not produce a student who is better then they.”

Rachel C's picture

Thanks very much for all your comments. The workshop is a lot clearer in my mind now.

'Reverse engineering' seems far more appropriate a term than 'copying'. I by no means want to encourage copy-culture - I just want to instill some basic principles and get students thinking about the structure behind design. Reverse engineering is something I have found very useful to further my knowledge - I don't think it is always the case of 'monkey see, monkey do'. I also feel it's something that - when used as learning tool and not as template - should be viewed in a positive light and not considered taboo. Having graduated from the same course several years ago I am very aware that some people completed the course without learning hardly any basic principles. It's a great course for encouraging creative thought but I think it could really benefit by being underpinned with a slightly old fashioned exercise.

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