When people first start developing their creative skills for the first time, they often go through a similar sequence of learning and trying new things.

They take something they already know and like, such as a drawing or song produced by a famous artist, and then:

  1. Copy it, until they can reproduce or perform it to a decent standard
  2. Transform it, to change it and put their own mark on it
  3. Combine it, taking aspects of the transformed version and combining those with other creations to create something new

If you look at a child learning to play an instrument or sing, they will learn to perform songs that previously existed, essentially copying the techniques and content from someone through deliberate practice. This is a vital stage of developing skills. Once a baseline of skills have been developed, then the person can begin to express their skills in new ways and create their own remixes.

The phrase copy, transform, combine was popularised by Kirby Ferguson, a New York–based filmmaker when he explained that everything is a remix.

Not only do individuals develop their skills by learning from and copying what other artists have produced before them, and the new techniques they have developed, but creativity is always based on the combination of knowledge in new ways. So the more knowledge and inspiration you can get from various sources, the more unique remixes you can create through transforming and combining what previously existed.

Not only that, great artists and creatives throughout history have openly spoken of the value of stealing ideas, inspiration and content from other artists. In this case, there is a fine line between an artist “copying” someone else’s work while putting their own take on it, which is perfectly acceptable and highly creative since a degree of transformation or combination has taken place. However, if someone copies something without changing anything at all, and without acknowledging the original source of the idea, then that is treated as plagiarism.

Since then, researchers have found examples of not just individuals going through the sequence of copy, transform, combine, but have also found it in entire communities as new technologies begin to diffuse through society.

So for anyone looking to develop their creative skills, whether it is a child or an adult, don’t discourage them if their first output looks like they are just copying. It shows they are on the right track to eventually put their own remixes together.

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Creativity & Innovation expert: I help individuals and companies build their creativity and innovation capabilities, so you can develop the next breakthrough idea which customers love. Chief Editor of Ideatovalue.com and Founder / CEO of Improvides Innovation Consulting. Coach / Speaker / Author / TEDx Speaker / Voted as one of the most influential innovation bloggers.