The necessity of imitation: why copying is fundamental to the creative process

Creativity and originality go together like peas in a pod. But Auckland designer Kate Cullinane’s thesis, a book called Sample Copy: An Exploration of the Role of Copying in Design, takes the stance that imitation is a part of the creative process. And it’s just won an international Art Directors Club Gold Cube award, as well as being named in the top three in the global Type Directors Club Awards for Typographic Excellence (the final rankings will be announced in July).

Now a graphic designer for Alt Group, Cullinane, who incidentally is an identical twin, grew up enjoying all the benefits of copying, from fooling teachers to having a perfectly synchronised sports partner.

“It was not until I entered design school that I became aware of the fear towards copying: the obsession to be original; the dismissal of an image that looks too similar to that of an existing piece. This negativity towards copying was something that I simply couldn’t relate to.”

Citing numerous distinguished designs with roots in copying and appropriation—from Warhol’s iconic Campbell’s Soup Can, to Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel to Salvador Dali’s Chupa Chups logo and Alexander McQueen’s Bosch Silk-Jacquard Dress of Autumn/Winter 2010—she  argues that building upon what already exists is more productive than starting from scratch.

“Copying is fundamental to the creative process. Copying is where new developments begin because good designers copy an existing work with the intention of surpassing it. I believe the act of copying advances design,” says Cullinane.

sample copy kate cullinane

Sample Copy features a slew of opinions from internationally renowned designers—from Barcelona to New York to Hong Kong, London and Auckland’s Dean Poole of Alt Group—all of whom Cullinane interviewed personally.

“Interviewing some of the world’s best designers was such an honour, and so exciting. Many of them sent me articles about copying that they found or even wrote. I can’t describe what it was like for me as a student to have correspondence with someone like Massimo Vignelli [an influential Italian designer responsible for the iconic New York Subway system signage and American Airlines identity].”

sample copy kate cullinane

The book was carefully crafted to convey the act of copying from start to finish. All images were put through a blue filter (a colour associated with carbon copies). The 45-degree angle originated from the common position of a ‘sample copy’ stamp, and was used throughout the book.

Sample Copy is aimed at designers, and Cullinane is stoked that they’ve responded positively.

“Not everyone will agree with my arguments, but that’s the point – I want to challenge the way people think,” she says.

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