SxSW 2008: Filching Design

by Luke Wroblewski March 11, 2008

At SxSW 2008, I had the pleasure of speaking on the Filching Design: When the Shoe Fits panel with Lindsey Simon (Google), and Skip Baney (Apple). We discussed the motivations, benefits, and drawbacks of reusing code or design elements (interactions, layouts, colors, etc.) found online.

  • What can be filched? Presentation layer (CSS, HTML, Images), APIs, Content (scraping, Terms of Service), Interaction flows (user signup, patterns), and just about anything accessible online through “view source” or “download as” features in Web browsers.
  • Benefits of filching: It's fast, saves time/money if you have a limited development or design team/budget, solutions are available out there that almost do what you want, you do not need to reinvent known answers, and just about anything that helps you implement quickly.
  • Drawbacks of filching: Legal implications of plagiarism (copyright, trademarks, patents, trade dress, etc.), your reputation is at stake, you may adopt a suboptimal solution, and you could up end up rewriting (time, money, resources).

While Lindsey focused on the reuse of code and Skip provided an overview and application of copyright to online assets, I focused on filching aspects of Web design.

  • A user experience can be copied across many levels: information architecture or entire structure of an application, screen layout, content mix, interaction elements, user flows, graphical elements, color palettes, and more.
  • People’s sensitivity to what is fair re-appropriation vs. unfair infringement may be influenced by their experience with the level of effort each user experience consideration requires. For example, a designer might spend hours on a color scheme and consider it a violation if someone reuses it. However, they may not think twice about copying Javascript code. A developer might have the opposite sensitivity.
  • Though filching designs might help increase the speed with which projects get done, there may be inadvertent consequences. Copying an existing interaction element or user flow (voting or sign-up) might prevent a product team from creating a unique experience-defining feature. For example, compare the sign up flow on genesunlimited vs. geni.
  • The dynamic, inline voting on social news site dig is a great example of creating a unique design solution that defines and grows your site. According to digg co-founder Kevin Rose: “When we made the move to the one-click digg, activity went through the roof. It was just insane! Just the ease of the one-click and you're done made all the difference in the world.” Had digg copied an existing voting solution –would it have had this kind of impact?
  • Simply copying a visual design (layout, colors, fonts, etc.) from an existing site may remove an opportunity for differentiation of your product or service. New users have just a few moments to form an opinion when they encounter your Web site. Do you want someone else’s brand message being communicated or one that you thought through and designed deliberately?