Generating New Ideas: Beg, Borrow And Steal Them

Generating New Ideas: Beg, Borrow And Steal Them

The associate director of strategy at Interbrand Sydney, Andy Wood, says when it comes to finding your very own inspiration a good starting point is pinching other people’s.

Andy Wood
Posted by Andy Wood

One of my first lecturers at university used to say that no one owns an idea – if you see something you like take it, adapt it and make it better than you found it. Sound advice and a concept that will keep most on the right track.

As much as I would like to believe that at the time there was something new about this idea of borrowing or stealing, sadly it’s not very original either. People or companies, even some that are considered pioneers and innovators, have been doing this for some time. Take Ford and how they borrowed the idea of transporting eggs safely in a carton, and then adapted it to develop seat belts for their cars. Some of today’s leading innovations have merely been using existing ideas and adapting them for the better.

This idea of borrowing or stealing does somewhat open up a debate around the question of originality. Does it really matter if ideas are original or not? Originality is defined as the quality or state of being original – new, fresh, inventive, arising or proceeding independently of anything else. But is it possible that originality is merely a myth? Something that is perceived when others can’t see where an idea has been borrowed from?

Let’s look at Apple. For many it’s seen as a beacon of innovation and originality, but is it really as original as everyone thinks? Apple has built up a very successful reputation through borrowing ideas from categories or companies and transferring them to their products and marketing to inspire consumer’s imaginations.

Steve Jobs said in 1996 “Picasso had a saying: Good artists copy, great artists steal and we have always been shameless about stealing great ideas”.

An example of this shameless stealing can be seen in Apple’s first mouse, which was essentially a cheaper, simpler and more durable version of what Xerox had been prototyping in the late 70’s. Jobs was able to take the idea of a mouse, appropriate it, improve it and use it to change the way computing was performed. The idea of the touch screen that Apple used in the iPhone was also borrowed from a photocopier. Nothing new to see here…

While being upfront about shamelessly stealing ideas, Apple’s true strength comes through their ability to adapt and make things better. They have forged a reputation for originality simply by adapting existing ideas in ways that others haven’t thought of. Possibly part of Apple’s perceived lack of innovation recently is that they have now become the artists people try to steal from: there are too few good ideas to steal that aren’t already based on ‘Apple thinking’.

For brands there are many useful techniques for borrowing ideas and adapting them for the better. One of these techniques, that can be quite useful, is the idea of overlaying – where we take the conventions from one category or sector and overlay it on a brand from a completely different sector. How would this brand act or behave if it was in another category or had a different category convention attached to it? Now take it a step further and ask, why can’t it behave like that today?

Inspiration of where to borrow concepts from can come from many places. But to really try to break the mould, look for sources of inspiration from much further afield than you would normally consider. More obscure reference points will help to create unexpected thinking, redefining what we know, or thought we knew, and bringing fresh interest.

In our search to find something that is perceived as new and original, can the race be won by those who can adapt the best or by those who have the best reference material? Perhaps today breadth of reference is more valuable than depth of reference.

So look around and steal from as many different places as you can. Remember that no one owns what you are about to create.