Imitation is the sincerest form of inspiration

08 May 2012

I’m sure you read that Facebook bought Instagram recently for little more than the change Zuckerberg found in between his couch cushions. No, I’m not going to talk about that acquisition, but about Instagram.

Example Instagram photoIf you haven’t used it, Instagram is a camera app for the iPhone (and now Android, to rather bitter commentary from a few Apple fanbois) that, unlike the camera app that comes with the phone, allows you to digitally manipulate the photos you take on the device itself. To that end you can apply artistic filters with whimsical names like Lo-Fi, Toaster, Hefe, 1977, Kelvin. Once manipulated, Instagram provides means to share your images across your social spectrum.

In effect, what Instagram did was to be inspired by all those rather lo-res, easily-faded polaroid pictures people used to take and create digital image manipulations that imitated those photos. The aforementioned 1977 filter, for example, produces an effect that looks like your photo has just spent the last thirty years in a box in the attic.

And that’s the main theme for this post: using something that already exists as inspiration for something new. Instagram did it for photos (“get that retro look and share your photos”), but what do we as developers of software in our daily jobs have? Just to warn you though, I’m talking about inspiration, not plagiarism: I’m certainly not condoning ripping off another application for your own.

The main inspiration for our new applications is obviously existing ones. Indeed, I’d say imitating Outlook in its various versions – no matter what you may think of it – has been the inspiration for many applications. Of course, some of our own WinForms controls have been inspired by Outlook. I would also say that existing applications also provide “anti-inspiration” in the sense of you know what to avoid doing by looking at such-and-such a program (“I can do much better than that!”).

Another source of inspiration, I find, is well-designed web sites and web applications. These are probably the best source of inspiration for me in my non-DevExpress work (say, messing with my personal blog): I see something cool or neat at some website and I long to learn from it and replicate it myself. As an example, one site I’m particularly enamoured of is ThinkGeek. Take a look at its main page on a wide screen (so that the robots/UFO background is visible) and then scroll the page until you reach the bottom. That is an awesome effect; totally inspiring, even though I’m not sure how or where I could imitate it.

The final source of inspiration for you is to use our full-featured demo applications. Here it’s even easier: you get the source code and the images/icons and our developer license allows you to take the demo and fix it so that it solves your business problem. I can’t tell you how many people have come up to me at conferences, looked at the Realtor World demo on my laptop’s screen (here’s the Silverlight version), and say wistfully, “I wish my app looked like that”. And I say, it’s just a demo with the product. Rip out our data source and plug in your own and make your app look like this. We’ve paid our designers to think about the hard stuff so that you can be inspired and imitate what we have.

(Of course, it almost goes without saying that our Realtor World app was inspired by the Metro look-and-feel from Windows 8, and that, in turn, was inspired by the so-called Swiss-style Graphic Design, which in turn owes much to the Bauhaus movement in the 1920s and 30s.)

And that is the crux of the whole post: make something great by building on top of something that’s already great. Imitation really is the sincerest form of inspiration.

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