Designer Book Club: Steal Like an Artist

By • 6 years ago with 8 replies already

Welcome to our first Designer Book Club! Today we’re chatting about a book with a catchy title and even catchier tips for creativity: Steal Like an Artist by self-proclaimed “writer who draws” Austin Kleon. This book is full of both good advice and attention-grabbing graphics, and steers us toward answering the question: where do ideas come from?

steal like an artist book

Be curious & follow your procrastination

To “steal” creative ideas, Kleon’s tips tell us that you first have to be paying attention – to everything! Steal funny phrases from your friends, from your kids or from conversations you overhear at the coffee shop. Steal beautiful color schemes from classical paintings. Steal interesting compositions and arrangements from trendy home decor. Best of all, you can steal from your own brain! All of us have moments where our minds wander from our assigned tasks. Where does your mind go? If you follow the threads of your brain’s wanderings when you’re avoiding other things, you might just discover a new passion. Surround yourself with the things that interest and excite you, dig deep into them and you’ll always find a new idea.

Copy to learn & transform

When Kleon talks about “stealing like an artist,” he doesn’t mean actually stealing. (Plagiarism is bad, folks!) What he’s actually talking about is learning, building creative foundations, finding inspiration everywhere and innovating from things and ideas that already exist. It’s understanding that “there’s nothing new under the sun” while also realizing that each of us has a unique view and voice to share with the world. Copy the masters not to pass it off as your own, but to figure out how they created an effect you love and apply it to your own work.


steal like an artist good v bad

When you’re thinking like an artist, you’re not taking other people’s ideas, but learning from them and drawing inspiration from them. Find the established artists that you admire as well as brand new voices in fields a little different from your own. Take the best parts of all of the things you love to create something totally new and totally you. Kleon describes this as reverse engineering: you’re taking the car apart to figure out how it works, not showing the car to someone else and telling them you made it.

Steal time

Stealing like an artist isn’t talking about just stealing creative ideas. One idea from Kleon’s book that stood out is the idea of stealing time – although he phrased it as “keep your day job.” We’re all busy with work, family, chores and then some – there’s always something to take our time and attention. But you can still make it a habit to carve out time afor your passions, no matter how little those chunks of time may be. Make a recurring calendar date for an hour to yourself for reading or sketching, steal time before and after work to build design ideas, sneak away on your lunch break to take in the sights and sounds. The most important part is to create a schedule and stick to it, no matter what, to build the habit of creative time. (That’s where a day job comes in handy!)

Steal widely, but know what to leave out

Kleon advises that the best way to be authentic in your stealing is to “steal” a wide variety of things, but with purpose. Steal only the ideas, concepts and techniques that really resonate with you, but steal a lot of them from a lot of different sources. He suggests keeping a notebook or “swipe file” where you can keep little tidbits of everything that interests you: magazine clippings of inspirational images, quotes from books, doodles while you’re talking on the phone, anything that strikes your fancy! Then, when you’re feeling uninspired, you already have a whole pile of little ideas waiting to be transformed into something new.

There’s lots more advice in Steal Like An Artist that any creative person can glean from to keep their ideas flowing. But my favorite piece of advice is one that’s important for every one of us: be nice!

steal like an artist be nice

Are any of you familiar with Austin Kleon’s work? What’s your favorite way to “steal like an artist”?

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8 thoughts on “Designer Book Club: Steal Like an Artist”

  1. This subject is very interesting to me. I have had this conversation with many people. In a world of The Simpsons where everything under the Sun has been done, having a unique thought or original idea is a rarity in the 21st century.

    Comedians learn from comedians, writers learn from reading what others have written, designers learn from designers. There is a difference between copying and stealing in every art form let it be music, literature, architecture or design.

    However I do hope that designers do not skim over this article and take the literal message “copy designs” away from it. Liz is pretty clear on plagiarism.

    Great article. It is an interesting topic. I will probably get this book.

    1. Right – the point of the book, and this post, is not to use others’ work as your own. Any “messing with other people’s art” is for learning purposes to find your own style.

  2. Also a wonderful read is Austin Kleon’s “Show Your Work!… 10 Ways To Share Your Creativity And Get Discovered.”

    Both “Steal Like An Artist” and “Show Your Work!” are two of the favorite books on art and creativity I have on my shelves. Definitely re-reads for me a couple of times a year. Austin Kleon’s writing is a pleasure!

  3. I received this book as a Christmas gift and love it! It’s a quick read with lots of inspiration. Highly recommend it! I like the idea of a designer book club to recommend books that can help inspire us designers! Looking forward to more recommendations! Thanks, Liz!

  4. Awesome Sauce! I will be checking out these books.I will tell other Artist or Designers about these books. Most of my painting are created for our church and elementary schools. When I have a project to do at church, I work with other Artists
    . Each one of us are creative and unique. We inspire one another and respect each others creativity. We learn a lot from each other and put our thoughts together and make something amazing. Especially when we have to make props for children. An Artist gets excited about her work is when he or she sees the joys she brings to other people.

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