Design Principle of Mimicry

by on 08/01/10 at 7:05 pm

A principle that allows you to create advanced designs is mimicry. It is probably one of the oldest design principles, but an effective one. It allows people to relate to your design in a meaningful way. Mimicry in design is the act of copying properties of familiar objects to improve and enhance the usability, likability and functionality of the design.

Mimicry is Universal

The use of mimicry stimulates the human imagination and experience. It allows us to quickly learn and understand how a design functions, and how we can use it to do what we want. What makes mimicry so powerful is that it’s universal. It doesn’t matter where you are from, what language you speak or what your cultural background is. Mimicry speaks to all. Mimicry is like a picture, it speaks a thousand words without having to use any words at all. When you apply it correctly, you will be able to take your design to whole new level.

Why it Works So Well

When you make your design look like something people are familiar with, people will associate the way the design functions to how the object of familiarity functions. A prime example of this is found on our very own computer desktop. The folder icons that hold your files aren’t actually folders, but they look like folders and function like folders. This makes it easy for us to understand the functionality and use folders in the correct way.  It also gives us a greater feeling of an office environment, which works perfectly with the situation because computers are often used for work at the office.  The trash or recycling bin icon on your desktop lets people know where deleted files go.  Emptying your trash bin makes it feel even more meaningful and memorable. The use of desktop icons is just one example of where mimicry is commonly used.

Another example of mimicry is found on websites like YouTube and Hulu. The video players on these sites mimic the buttons we normally find on our VCR and DVD players. Using familiar icons for the play and volume button allows us to recognize that the video player functions similarly to the media players in our living room homes. Hulu even takes it further by adding a “raise and lower lights” feature that tints the window area surrounding the video player to mimic how we experience watching movies at the theater.

Last but not least, another good example of mimicry is the concept of bookmarks. This concept first pervaded our web browsers. Now, it’s being used on almost every website in the form of different social bookmarking buttons and widgets. It evolved from bookmarking web pages in your browser to bookmarking web pages on your favorite social bookmarking site. It has grown immensely and it probably would not have been possible without using mimicry to mimic how real bookmarks work. Mimicry isn’t just about applying visual appearances of familiar objects to design, but it’s also about applying the concepts of familiar objects to design as well. In this case, designers applied the concept of bookmarking to the web and now it’s a huge success.

People can create great design innovations by using the principle of mimicry. By incorporating the existing knowledge that people already have into your design, you will be able to innovate too.


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Author and editor-in-chief of UX Movement. Loves great web experiences and fights for the user.

2 Responses to “Design Principle of Mimicry”

  1. […] T&#1211&#1077 Influence &#959f Everyday Objects | […]

  2. Nicolas Bouliane

    Sep 8th, 2010

    These examples are great, but obvious. It would be good to have a few more innovative cases and not only the one we have since the late 1990’s

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