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Copywork: The Ultimate Way to Rapidly Improve Your Design Skills

Originally posted on Smashing Magazine

There’s a technique for improving one’s user interface design skills that is the most efficient way I know of expanding one’s visual vocabulary but that I’ve rarely heard mentioned by digital designers.

What’s going on here?

I’m talking about copywork. Copywork is a technique that writers and painters have been using for centuries. It is the process of recreating an existing work as closely as possible in order to improve one’s skill. In our case, this means recreating a user interface (UI) design pixel for pixel.

It’s not as pointless as it sounds, I promise. The trick is to pick a design that is better than what you are currently capable of. By copying something outside of your wheelhouse, you will be expanding your skills.

So, if you want to improve your use of color, copy something with some crazy gradients or a bold palette. If you want to get better at luxury branding, copy a preeminent website with a ritzy look and feel.

Obviously, this technique is not rocket science. Actually, it would be hard to think of a more mundane exercise. But it is the most effective way I know to improve my UI design skills.

Which is the original and which is the copy? Original by Sam Thibault.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Writers Copying Writers

I first heard about copywork on the blog The Art of Manliness, where Brett McKay gives a long history of those who’ve used copywork to develop their writing skill.

  • Jack London copied swaths of Rudyard Kipling’s writing to adapt his forebear’s world-class cadence and phrasing.
  • Robert Louis Stevenson would meticulously study sections of writing he found particularly beautiful, then reproduce them word for word from memory.
  • Benjamin Franklin followed a variant of copywork, writing notes about each sentence in an essay and then, a few days later, trying to recreate the essay by reading his notes — and comparing the results.

The list goes on. I know that Raymond Chandler, the famous mystery writer, used a technique similar to Benjamin Franklin’s, rewriting a novelette from a detailed description, and then comparing his with the original to study the flow.

He actually wrote to the original author later in life, telling him how instructive the exercise was. Pay attention to his analysis:

I found out that the trickiest part of your technique was the ability to put over situations, which verged on the implausible but which in the reading seemed quite real. I hope you understand I mean this as a compliment. I have never even come near to doing it myself. Dumas had this quality in very strong degree. Also Dickens. It’s probably the fundamental of all rapid work, because naturally rapid work has a large measure of improvisation, and to make an improvised scene seem inevitable is quite a trick.

This is not a rote exercise. Chandler is extremely thoughtful about the differences between his work and the original and is well versed in the subtleties of style of many authors. Can you speak this articulately about UI design? If not, may I recommend copywork?

Just as a writer copying the greats before him unconsciously absorbs the tiniest choices those authors made — the word choice, phrasing, cadence and so on — a designer doing copywork also absorbs the subtlest choices in the designs they study — the spacing, layout, fonts, decorative elements. Therein lies its power.

Let’s take a quick look at copywork in one other art form, though, one with a remarkably long history.

Painting The Old Masters Link

If you’ve wandered through an art museum, you’ve probably seen copywork in action. Apart from my own desk, it’s the only place I’ve seen it.

Copywork in an art gallery

Painters have an even longer history than writers of copying the masters. Leonardo da Vinci developed his art (one of his arts, anyhow) by copying his teacher, Andrea Del Verrocchio — a common practice among Renaissance apprentice artists. Da Vinci actually prescribed copywork as practice numero uno for art students:

The artist ought first to exercise his hand by copying drawings from the hand of a good master.

Why? Because copying directly from a master provides a controlled setting in which to train your eye.

When you’re painting a live scene, on the other hand, there’s a lot to worry about — the model will move, the wind will pick up, the sun will set. Until your brain can think naturally in shape and color, painting in the real world will be tough. But in the studio, you can take all the time you need to absorb the basics.

While UI designers do not model anything after a natural scene in the same way as painters, copywork provides a useful way to eliminate variables and distractions while honing your skill.

But although it was once a foundational exercise of some of the world’s greatest artists, copywork has fallen out of favor. Nowadays, it’s viewed as rote, uncreative and reeking of plagiarism.

So, why should a UI designer copy for practice?

Read the rest at Smashing Magazine.

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