Can a person involved in a creative process look at another creative work, appreciate its qualities and use elements of another work (colors that were chosen, how information is presented on page, relative size of text) in your own design? This is not copying the text, the pictures, or the coding / programming of the work, just the visual style. To be clear this is not software piracy, it is the appearance / style / look that is being copied. Is this copying a sin under “Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice, who makes his neighbor serve him for nothing and does not give him his wages…” (Jeremiah 22:13)?
I’m a web designer and work on numerous websites dealing with business issues. Designing a web site requires a lot of layout and graphic work, and it can become difficult to come up with fresh ideas on how to lay out a website. Existing web sites that have been put together can be a rich source of ideas as to style, as are pre-made templates that can be bought. As to the pre-made templates the purchase would give you the code so no effort is required, where as doing it myself requires far more work, but the inspiration comes from the template. I cannot look at a advertisement without thinking about invisible lines, white space, eye direction, item groupings, and which persuasion techniques are being used.
I wish to avoid sin, and have found most helpful the works of St. Alphonsus Liguori (a doctor of the Church), says (“The Glories of Mary”) "The second means is to fly the occasions of sin. He that is aware of the snares shall be secure: ‘Qui autem cavet laqueos, securus erit.’ "
If this is a sin I must avoid it at all costs, but I wonder. Many of the great artists going back in time drew inspiration from each other as well as shared stylistic techniques. Science in all fields also has a history of drawing methods and techniques from proven advances. People studying literature to write better are provided style manuals as well as key extracts from noted authors to impress the student into incorporating the styles of the masters to improving the novice. I realize that these are clever examples, but are they the tricky persuasions of Satan trying to trick me and weaken my soul?
The counter argument is the legal case between Samsung and Apple where they have a cell phone device that are very similar to each other and is causing a contentious court case. There is no question that neither code or programming was copied, just that they look and work too similar (eg the slide to unlock feature). However this is a intellectual property (IP) case, and might not apply to moral theology.
Now to be clear there are books written specifically for this for web designers on design theory, and I have some of those books. However these are not as useful as the live examples.
To what degree can the appearance of something be copied without it being a sin?