Learning by copying: Why pulling inspiration from existing ideas is great

Back in September I finally started to build my portfolio site from scratch. This was back when the extent of my coding knowledge pretty much ended at how to save a document as an HTML page. Making my own website? Forget it; I had no idea where or how to start.

Former student fellow KK Rebecca Lai suggested I find a bunch of websites, study the elements I liked through the console (the box that appears when you right click in the browser and “Inspect Element”), and try to recreate them.

I started by examining her portfolio, moved on to the portfolios of other student fellows, then further into whatever I could find through Google. The process helped me see concrete examples and visualize what I was trying to learn. My website now is more or less a melting pot of all cool things I found on about 40 websites along with my own additions and stylistic choices and is completely different from any of them.

With all that in mind, I wanted to share how seeking inspiration from existing projects can help you.

  1. Code debugging - As an inexperienced coder, I often find myself running into errors when trying to recreate things I’ve seen. By studying existing code from a source that already functions, I can distance myself from my code and see a completely different train of thought. This helps me understand the strengths and weaknesses of my original logic and proceed from there.
  2. Smartest classmate - Along those same lines, learning by looking at others' work is a way to ask for help without actually asking for it. You know when teachers say “Ask your classmates first if you have a question”? Well, in this case, the entire internet is the all-knowing classmate and answers are just a few clicks away. If you’re having trouble, check out Suyeon Son's tips on searching for code solutions.
  3. Personal toolkit - When I want to create something, I study existing code line by line to understand its flow and Google any terms I don’t know, which is the first step to adding it to my toolkit so I can use it later. When I was building my site, I came across Sarah Adler's site and like the way she used the FancyBox function to display and navigate through her print designs. In this case I learned not only about the FancyBox function, but also how to download jQuery libraries, link to them and call the function. Here’s how it turned out!
    FancyBox FancyBox
  4. Building blocks - Learning by copying is also about observing and taking notice of the small details that someone else thought about. Although the end product isn't likely the same as the original (which it shouldn’t be), looking at someone else's code is a good way to get into the habit of paying attention to detail. I keep a mental note of my favorite things to use as building blocks to create new things. It’s like never starting from scratch (good for coding, bad for baked goods).

    [caption id="attachment_6471" align="alignnone" width="961"]Navigation Bar The author's navigation bar, inspired by Marc Thomas.[/caption]

    Take my navigation bar for example: I took inspiration from the portfolio of Marc Thomas, who has animated icons on his site. Using his idea as a starting point, I drew my own illustrations figured out how to animate them on hover.

  5. Landmarker - Teaching myself how to build projects often feels like I’m going down an unpaved road. I have a constantly growing bookmarks folder of cool things I want to copy, which helps me set goals for myself and mark my progress. It’s also helped me discover the styles I like and develop my own taste for online content.


 

About the author

Ashley Wu

Undergraduate Fellow

Designing, developing and studying journalism at Northwestern. Also constantly scouting the campus for free food.

Latest Posts

  • A Brief Introduction to NewsgamesCan video games be used to tell the news?

    When the Financial Times released The Uber Game in 2017, the game immediately gained widespread popularity with more than 360,000 visits, rising up the ranks as the paper’s most popular interactive piece of the year. David Blood, the game’s lead developer, said that the average time spent on the page was about 20 minutes, which was substantially longer than what most Financial Times interactives tend to receive, according to Blood. The Uber Game was so successful that the Financial...

    Continue Reading

  • With the 25th CAR Conference upon us, let’s recall the first oneWhen the Web was young, data journalism pioneers gathered in Raleigh

    For a few days in October 1993, if you were interested in journalism and technology, Raleigh, North Carolina was the place you had to be. The first Computer-Assisted Reporting Conference offered by Investigative Reporters & Editors brought more than 400 journalists to Raleigh for 3½ days of panels, demos and hands-on lessons in how to use computers to find stories in data. That seminal event will be commemorated this week at the 25th CAR Conference, which...

    Continue Reading

  • Prototyping Augmented Reality

    Something that really frustrates me is that, while I’m excited about the potential AR has for storytelling, I don’t feel like I have really great AR experiences that I can point people to. We know that AR is great for taking a selfie with a Pikachu and it’s pretty good at measuring spaces (as long as your room is really well lit and your phone is fully charged) but beyond that, we’re really still figuring...

    Continue Reading

  • Capturing the Soundfield: Recording Ambisonics for VR

    When building experiences in virtual reality we’re confronted with the challenge of mimicking how sounds hit us in the real world from all directions. One useful tool for us to attempt this mimicry is called a soundfield microphone. We tested one of these microphones to explore how audio plays into building immersive experiences for virtual reality. Approaching ambisonics with the soundfield microphone has become popular in development for VR particularly for 360 videos. With it,...

    Continue Reading

  • Audience Engagement and Onboarding with Hearken Auditing the News Resurrecting History for VR Civic Engagement with City Bureau Automated Fact Checking Conversational Interface for News Creative Co-Author Crowdsourcing for Journalism Environmental Reporting with Sensors Augmented Reality Visualizations Exploring Data Visualization in VR Fact Flow Storytelling with GIFs Historical Census Data Information Spaces in AR/VR Contrasting Forms Of Interactive 3D Storytelling Interactive Audio Juxtapose Legislator Tracker Storytelling with Augmented Reality Music Magazine Navigating Virtual Reality Open Data Reporter Oscillations Personalize My Story Photo Bingo Photojournalism in 3D for VR and Beyond Podcast Discoverability Privacy Mirror Projection Mapping ProPublica Illinois Rethinking Election Coverage SensorGrid API and Dashboard Sidebar Smarter News Exploring Software Defined Radio Story for You Storyline: Charts that tell stories. Storytelling Layers on 360 Video Talking to Data Visual Recipes Watch Me Work Writing and Designing for Chatbots
  • Prototyping Spatial Audio for Movement Art

    One of Oscillations’ technical goals for this quarter’s Knight Lab Studio class was an exploration of spatial audio. Spatial audio is sound that exists in three dimensions. It is a perfect complement to 360 video, because sound sources can be localized to certain parts of the video. Oscillations is especially interested in using spatial audio to enhance the neuroscientific principles of audiovisual synchrony that they aim to emphasize in their productions. Existing work in spatial......

    Continue Reading

  • Audience Engagement and Onboarding with Hearken Auditing the News Resurrecting History for VR Civic Engagement with City Bureau Automated Fact Checking Conversational Interface for News Creative Co-Author Crowdsourcing for Journalism Environmental Reporting with Sensors Augmented Reality Visualizations Exploring Data Visualization in VR Fact Flow Storytelling with GIFs Historical Census Data Information Spaces in AR/VR Contrasting Forms Of Interactive 3D Storytelling Interactive Audio Juxtapose Legislator Tracker Storytelling with Augmented Reality Music Magazine Navigating Virtual Reality Open Data Reporter Oscillations Personalize My Story Photo Bingo Photojournalism in 3D for VR and Beyond Podcast Discoverability Privacy Mirror Projection Mapping ProPublica Illinois Rethinking Election Coverage SensorGrid API and Dashboard Sidebar Smarter News Exploring Software Defined Radio Story for You Storyline: Charts that tell stories. Storytelling Layers on 360 Video Talking to Data Visual Recipes Watch Me Work Writing and Designing for Chatbots
  • Oscillations Audience Engagement Research Findings

    During the Winter 2018 quarter, the Oscillations Knight Lab team was tasked in exploring the question: what constitutes an engaging live movement arts performance for audiences? Oscillations’ Chief Technology Officer, Ilya Fomin, told the team at quarter’s start that the startup aims to create performing arts experiences that are “better than reality.” In response, our team spent the quarter seeking to understand what is reality with qualitative research. Three members of the team interviewed more......

    Continue Reading

Storytelling Tools

We build easy-to-use tools that can help you tell better stories.

View More