Posted 31 May 2007, by Aaron
Every designers’ dirty little secret is that they copy other designers’ work. They see work they like, and they imitate it. Rather cheekily, they call this inspiration.
This scourge of the design world has reached such epidemic proportions that there is said to be, “no such thing as an original idea.”
Don’t worry, I intentionally write to rile your ego’s. Actually I think designers are very talented people – especially the ones that read miLienzo.com – but there is an element of truth to what I say.
It is human nature to absorb what we see and experience, and consequently be influenced by it. If I see a stunning design, I cant help but be inspired by it in some way. Sometimes this happens consciously, sometimes it happens subconsciously.
Last week at work a design studio submitted a number of concepts for a flyer design I’d commissioned. We were happy with what they’d provided and picked one of the concepts. Later that week, whilst reading my copy of a popular weekly design magazine, I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between the front cover of the magazine and one of the concepts.
The similarity wasn’t a distant, vague similarity – it was what I would class as blatant plagiarism. The colours were different and elements positioned slightly differently, but the concept was exactly the same.
As it happened, we had chosen a different concept anyway, but I still phoned the designers up and gave them a piece of my mind. If we had unwittingly picked the copied idea, it wouldn’t have been them potentially accused of plagiarism, it would have been us. I wasn’t a happy chap.
However, this goes on all the time doesn’t it? Ideas are constantly absorbed, regurgitated and recycled. Often the result is sufficiently abstracted from the original idea to call it inspiration; sometimes the result is a carbon copy of the original idea.
Where is the line drawn?
So when does inspiration become plagiarism? Have you ever copied someone else’s idea (be honest)? How much of someone else’s idea can we use before it becomes a copy? We all look at sites like Logopond for ideas; is that inspiration or copying? And is there such a thing as an original idea?
I realise I ask a lot of questions which have murky answers. Personally I think everyone is guilty of a bit of plagiarism, even if it occurs in the subconscious. I’m fascinated to see what designers consciously say about the matter.
Thanks to Marc, Lauren Marie, Asgeir and Tara for the recent posts’ comments.
We tend to remember much more than we actually think we do, and end up getting these wonderful ideas out of â€˜nowhereâ€™. I think subconscious plagiarism is a greater problem than conscious stealing, because it includes everyone. I guess most designers have finished a layout or a design just to realise that it is a pretty precise ripoff of a CD cover in your car or a billboard you drive by every day. This can be hard to avoid. Conscious stealing is just.. well, just donâ€™t do it.
On the other hand, everyone needs inspiration, and your question is a good (and hard) one. I also believe it depends on the mediums. â€˜Stealingâ€™ elements from a website header to use as chapter summary graphics in a book about birds is better than using it in your own web site header. (Iâ€™m saying â€™stealingâ€™ as in recreating something similar, not as in screenshots and Photoshop magic.)
Inspiration is probably a skill to be learned, and it is going to be fun to hear other opinions on this.
Earlier this year I finished a logo for the marketing and SEO company Mediakoordinator:
You might draw parallels to a certain junk food chain. Even though we had a thorough process with heaps of ideas and a completely different message, the logo is pretty much a stylized grayscale version of the McDonaldâ€™s arches.
Plagarism is when the content owner feels you’ve used too much of their work without proper credit. I also think there’s something to be said for adding “significant enough” value to justify republishing the work. I put that phrase in quotes because it’s subjective.
I favorited you on Technorati.
Hmm, my dirty little secret isâ€“I draw my source from inspiration from the ether. And coffee. And baby-carrots, with humus.
Seriously, I do not believe other designers dirty little secrets are, that they steal others work.
I have never subscribed to ‘it’s been done before,’ ether, even when I’ve found out thatâ€“something had been done. But that meant I wasn’t digging deep enough. Conceptually speaking, it’s impossible for everything to have been done. From an executional standpoint, a lot of things have been copied. Given the proper conceptual time, most creatives can and will innovate. An unfortunate problem is 1) Clients scared of the truly new; 2) Deadlines; 3) Being objective; ( and the worst ) 4) Reading Design Annuals, award books, and idolizing others work.
Asgeir, that is a great quote but it is also out of context. Or perhaps, we should to refer to it as a ‘reinterpretation,’ of the original quote for the sake of inspiration for the writer.
Another good post.
I agree it has been taken out of its original context, but then again, that’s how quotes usually end up. It still makes a valid point in this discussion.
“Seriously, I do not believe other designers dirty little secrets are, that they steal others work.”
I agree, but the subconscious ’stealing’ – if that term can be used – is still a common incident.
The clip you and others posted a month is interesting to consider in this discussion as well:
I do look at lots of other designer’s work for inspiration but I can say I’ve never copied anything. If I am going to build on the idea of another, I always do my best to make it my own first in some way, or else, what’s the point? If I completely copy, then I’ve learned nothing.
I’ve imitated before but only when the assignment calls for it. And assignments in college sometimes call for a lot of imitating =( I’ve done two Van Gogh paintings just this quarter. Anyway, I’m rambling ..
Right now I’m in a painting class and there is a girl who seems to steal ideas all the time. I paint a swirly tree, she paints a swirly tree. I use texture, she uses texture. She’s always near and watching and asking what I’m doing next. Would that be considered plagiarism?
I’m flattered that she likes my style, but on the other hand .. it’s mine! =)
Subconscious plagiarism is quite abstract since it’s something we can’t really control, so it might show up here and there but normally we wouldn’t notice it. I don’t think you can plagiarize enough of someones idea subconsciously for it to be a problem. It’s the conscious plagiarism we should worry about.
Asgeir, that is an interesting clip however, it’s far from plagiarism. Influence through a controlled environment is a standard form of teaching. And if you apply my initial 3 points to the video, it makes more sense. Those guys had 30 minutes to come up with something. As I’ve grown over the years, I toss out the first five things I come up with. I know it’s all regurgitated work/influence that I need to filter through to achieve something new.
I also think younger designers are more prone to coping not because of lack of ideas but more so as a learning experience. As a young illustrator, I would copy all my favorite pin-up artists. As I grew into a style and technique, I stopped looking at ‘my favorites’ and started creating work from scratch. Sometimes we copy as a means of understanding.
The difference here is, there was no commercial value in my copying other illustrators. The drawings sat on my wall and I never submitted them in place of my own work.
Designers are part of mass communication and should be weary of doing such things.
I think it’s important to mention this as well, as It’s happened to me before. Clients will give direction and reference other’s work too. Sometimes we can fall victim to that without knowing it. I had one client years ago, send me comps from another designer ( it took me a day to realize the client hadn’t sketched the comps themselves ), naturally I laughed and told them to get written permission from the real designer before I began working. I had another client send me an ad asking if I could recreate the look for their company. I’ve also had Creative Directors do the same thing. I scrutinize creative briefs too. Depending on who wrote them, they can lead us into the wrong direction and in some cases, emulate an existing campaign or design. But to your point, yesâ€“some people just blatantly copy.
Start painting pictures of things you personally own in your house. Heck, start a self-portrait. There is no way she could be ‘inspired,’ to the exact solution you created.
opps, this one was a little long.
Asgeir brought up a point that I was going to mention, about the subconscious mind. It’s why the topic is such a grey area.
We create design from what we’ve been exposed to. Of course in your example with the flyer / magazine, you can cross the line in a big way.
haha, good advice, I will give that a try =)
There is no parthenogenesis in art or design on that part, long time now…
But still an I believe that we are daily bombarded by information based on design, some times even accidentaly we copy. I remember seeing a video that a TV guy put 2 known designers to come to his office and design a certain logo while he put them to drive to the building from a certain path and they actually designed what he thought and already prepared without them even knowing.
[...] When does inspiration become plagiarism? (Great discussion in Aaron’s article) [...]
[...] where the line between inspiration and plagiarism lies. I found a really interesting article on Milienzo that discusses design [...]
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