The Power of What Others are Doing

boxing gloves

Staring at the blank screen or sheet of paper is every creative’s nightmare. E-learning professionals are not far from writers and designers in this sense, as in most cases they need to start from scratch and build a program that will truly add value, be aesthetically pleasing and is in line with the learning objectives of a company.

The easiest way to fight creative block is to simply glance over to what others are doing and copy what seems to be working for them. John Cullum’s character in the film Kill Your Darlings declares, “There can be no creation before imitation.” This seems to ring true for most people trying to come up with a new product or idea and being lost in doubt or lack of creative spark.

Yes, it is tempting to imitate the success of another e-learning program and in some cases, when done within reason, copying design, style and presentation is not illegal. However, just in as many cases, bare imitation without first considering the audience and specific goals of the program tends to fire back.

When copying is counterproductive

When I was starting out in my career, I often looked for guidance and inspiration in other award-winning courses. Soon, the frustration of the huge gap between my own shamefully amateurish courses and the sleek, engaging ones of the pros made me abandon my efforts to be unique. I started looking at things I could “borrow” from the big names in e-learning course creation, while giving them my own unique twist.

At the time, I was working on a training program for a big accounting firm, which was aimed at introducing the changes in the international accounting standards. I knew perfectly well who my audience was.

The majority of learners would be high-authority, busy professionals, who were already used to consuming large amounts of information daily and wanted to get the latest useful facts in the few spare moments they got. Then they wanted to move on to implement them in their daily activities.

What I made them do instead was play games.

Needless to say the course was not a success and I did not get recurring business with the client at that time. In looking to follow the latest trends and copy from the best, I had completely ignored what my client wanted and what might have worked best for them.

Just because every other e-learning pro praised gamification. I had in fact taken the strategy from an esteemed name I was aspiring to become like.

When copying works

E-learning course designers cannot expect to break new ground with every single program they work on. In fact, it is hardly ever the case that a presentation or a course will rely exclusively on original ideas. I cannot honestly say I have come up with my own winning strategies myself. That’s the point of learning, actually. You observe, you study and you take up what works.

For example, I soon figured my courses were too elaborate. There were plenty of details on each screen, instructions were lengthy, but fuzzy, and I used fonts I found incredibly stylish, but were totally unreadable.

I never stop looking for inspiring success stories among other e-learning program creators and what struck me at the time was the increasing simplicity and clean design applied by the pros.

Instead of my heavy, laden with content, images and buttons screens, theirs were reserved for single concepts, highlighted through sleek design and minimalistic approach. I saw it worked and I knew it would work with any client. So I “copied.”

The moral of the story

So, when does it make sense to “copy”? Here, I don’t mean shamelessly duplicating content and design, but rather borrowing what works. I have found out that the client comes first. You have seen an amazing technique a colleague has used in her latest e-learning success? Stop and think whether it makes sense to use it with your project at all.

Can you tweak it to work? Or is it completely irrelevant? A deep understanding of your client’s needs will provide the answers.

So, do you like to look at the work of others for inspiration or do you prefer to strike out completely on your own and rely on your creative instincts? Do you think copying is cheating?

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