Design Plagiarism: The Scourge of the Creative Class

“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.”
– T.S. Eliot

“Immature artists imitate. Mature artists steal.”
– Lionel Trilling

“A good composer does not imitate; he steals.”
– Igor Stravinsky

There’s something telling in the fact that even a quote about artistic plagiarism was appropriated by a variety of artists and writers enough times that the original thought is likely lost to history. Perhaps the most famous variant of this idea in popular culture occurred when Steve Jobs “quoted” Pablo Picasso as having said, “Good artists copy. Great artists steal.” Problem is, there’s no ready evidence that Picasso ever uttered those words, stolen or no.

When you move from the written word to the visual icon, the waters can get even murkier. Many of us who earn our keep as designers are all too familiar with the phenomenon of putting the finishing touches on a masterpiece, only to see a heartbreakingly similar design out in the wild days or months or years later. If we’re convinced that our work came first, our reaction will settle somewhere between indignant and flattered; if we discover we’ve followed too closely in someone else’s footsteps, we’ll keep our heads down and hope that we’re not mentioned by name in an article like this one.

You can find plenty of examples of lookalike design work; designers and those who write about design are quick to notice and call out instances of design plagiarism. Sometimes it’s obvious that a designer gave in to the original sin of our industry by blatantly appropriating another’s work, in part or in whole, and passing it off as his or her own. More often, there’s just an unfortunate alignment of aesthetics that results in two unrelated pieces with an eerie similarity. In those cases, whoever got to market first gets the bragging rights and, if it comes to it, the legal standing to insist that the pretender pull the doppelgänger off the shelf and start over.

At St. Gregory Group, we’re diligent about our research to eliminate the possibility of similar work before we present logo designs to our clients. While we would hesitate to move forward with any design that has an identical twin out there somewhere, it’s especially critical to steer clear of copycat visuals within a client’s specific field.

In the same way, any company or individual in the process of branding or rebranding would do well to familiarize themselves with the visual landscape available through a well-executed Google search. For example, if you own a coffee shop and are looking to rebrand with a new name and logo, take a few moments and search “Midwest Coffee Companies” or “Coffee Shops in Ohio” and see what comes up.  Switch your view in Google to “Images” and you’ll probably get to look at a LOT of logos in your category. You’ll know what’s out there, what’s been done, and what might look fresh.

For ninja-level Googlers, try taking your new or current logo and uploading it here: https://images.google.com/ See if you’re stepping on someone else’s look, or if they’re stepping on yours.

All that said, there’s one piece of advice that dates to before any of us considered copying anything:

What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.
– Ecclesiastes 1:9

Or, put another way:

You say there’s nothin’ new
and oh my god that might be true
but whatcha think you’re gonna do
that’s worthwhile when there’s nothin’ new?
– Modest Mouse, “Nothing New”

Here are a handful of logo designs that ended up resembling logos that belonged to someone else. Take a look and decide for yourself: how similar is TOO similar?