Similarity or Plagiarism: Design in a “when everything was already” era
Alexander Zagorskiy, creative director of the branding agency Depot WPF, recalled vivid examples of accusations of borrowing by designers and wrote a column on the fine line between plagiarism and unintentional similarity of works.
How difficult is it to come up with new ideas when a lot of everything has already been invented around, but you still need to come up with something new?
The most common negative feedback that a designer can hear about his work: “It already happened!”, “This is unoriginal!”. The worst accusation of this kind is “Plagiarism”. In our time, when “everything was already there,” in a situation of overproduction of material and intellectual values and the openness of information, the difference between similarity and plagiarism becomes difficult to distinguish.
The question of borrowing, originality and secondary nature constantly pops up in the information field. The most striking example is the litigation between Apple and Samsung. Having released the first smartphone, Apple thus determined what it should be, putting the rest of the market players in a losing position. Everyone else has to play with the size of the gadget itself and the shape of the buttons.
Fortunately, the super-corporation war does not do them much reputational damage. In addition, there are a huge number of loyal consumers in the world, and each of them will like a phone with a special button shape and monitor size. For people, the idea of the object they are holding is more important, it is important for them whether this button is made for convenience or for the sake of aesthetic perfectionism, and these buttons do not have to look different (they may have different goals, tasks, ideas, and the form of expression may be similar).
The graphic designer is not the most public profession, corporate or consumer branding specialists rarely make it into the news bulletins or on the air of popular shows. The last high-profile and significant event that affected our profession and brought the figure of a designer to the top chats of the world media is the refusal of the organizing committee of the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo from the approved logo of the games after accusations of plagiarism. (the work for the Olympics by designer Kenjiro Sano turned out to be similar to the logo of the theater in Liege by designer Olivier Debi – ed.)… It is noteworthy that the noise around this event was mainly fueled by the professional community.
Interestingly, the Airbnb logo situation has been discussed, but not widely publicized. Probably because Japanese designer Akisato Ueda, who created the sign in 1975 for Azuma, did not accuse DesignStudio of plagiarism.
To me, the story with the emblem of the Tokyo Olympics seems painfully symptomatic and indicative – it reveals the contradictory processes that are inherent in our profession.
All over the world there are a huge number of graphic designers – working in studios, agencies, and independent. And they all create and publish a huge amount of work in open portfolios on a daily basis. Each of us has a lot of bookmarks on our computers with the inspiring work of our colleagues. Selection of references and creation of mood boards have become an integral part of our work for a long time.
Works are created and published with an eye on the professional community, with an eye on approval and recognition. Seeing your work, a designer on the other side of the world must exclaim: “I would like to do the same!”. That is, your work should theoretically be understandable and close both ideologically and plastically to the largest possible number of professionals. This is where the main danger lies: the work should be both trendy (that is, contain common places and stylistic references that are clear to everyone), and original, somewhat dissimilar. In general, everything is like in life: you need to be different and at the same time be similar.
When creating a new work of graphic design, you can overdo it with originality, and then no one will understand your work, it will not be close to anyone. You can also overdo it with a common place – in this case, your work will simply merge with the general mass. It is accepted by legal methods to check your work for secondary and to protect it from repetitions, going through the process of registering a trademark – this is a good school, knowledge of this process can greatly help designers in their future work.
As for the legal issue in the dispute over the originality of the Olympics emblem, the Belgian designer did not register his product (emblem / sign) of the Liege Theater when he handed it over to the client, and, as you know, the theater did not do this either, unlike the emblem of the Olympics, which took place all procedures for the international registration of a trademark.
As the author of the theater logo says, his work can be found on Pinterest. The question arises: is the fact of placing a logo or sign on social networks and open portfolios like Behance protected? That is, it is assumed that, in addition to checking the official international database of registered marks and logos, you also need to study Behance and Pinterest? I’m afraid that in this case it will be difficult for the designers themselves to communicate with clients and sell their services to them.
So is it repetition or plagiarism? Repetition or plagiarism of the Airbnb logo? It is always a question of the origin of the work, of one form or another. Whether the form of the logo of the sign is dictated by some internal history, whether it has a development in the form of a plastic corporate identity – if the form correlates with the content, then such a work can be considered self-sufficient. In this case, it is difficult to reproach the designer for choosing the form that ideally suited the inner idea of the work.
Of course, the Tokyo Olympics logo is similar to the theater logo, but only similar, just like 90% of the design portfolios featured on Behance. Each of these works has its own internal prerequisites. The Tokyo emblem is clearly a piece of Japanese design. It is simple and ideologically filled, three “T” symbolize: Tokyo, Tomorrow, Team.
In the theater sign, two letters are combined into a ligature: Theater + de Liege.
In both cases, the correct graphic solution was chosen. If we pay attention to the corporate styles, then in the case of the theater, the development is formal and poor, which cannot be said about the identity of the Olympics, which will probably be different.
It is a pity that this whole story did not result in a professional discussion of issues of originality, trends, the scarcity of visual tools, the search for new solutions and other professional problems and issues that every designer faces.
Each of us has to look for an interesting original idea, relevant means of expressing it, present projects to the customer, register and sell intellectual property, and protect it. The issue of representation of our works is important for us – for this, open portfolios are created.
Instead, the professional community took the simplest and most infantile path, accusing its colleague of plagiarism. At the same time, the questions remain the same: how to be similar, but to be different, how to work and create something original in an era when “everything was already”, where to look for inspiration for new works (if not in the works of your colleagues) – there are so many questions …
As for whether this is similarity or plagiarism, the answer for me is unambiguous: the form is limited, the set of visual solutions is also. The only thing that can be truly original today is an idea, and not by itself. The idea should be in close connection with the context and the possibility of its development. In this case, similar things can be perceived in completely different ways.
There is another aspect of this theme – categorization. Identity is not created by itself and it is not clear why. She always has a customer and a product category, be it banking, the insurance sector, farm products, or at worst a zoo, which can also be a stretch, but considered a category.
Euronews and USA Today are the closest examples of when signs and logos with similar tasks and themes turn out to be similar. Both signs are circles, both symbolize the planet, globality and centricity, both are made for the mainstream media. But developing a corporate identity and working with the format for which they were created are different.
USA Today is print media with many subcategories. These are good conditions for a dynamic identity. Euronews is TV. The choice of white for a corporate identity is ideal for conveying a variety of content. This example illustrates well my idea that today similar visual solutions are possible. The main thing is that they are appropriate and formally justified.
If you look at another product category – luxury products – you can see that many signs and logos are very similar, for example Gucci and Chanel.
The same brands that use typography use a font close to Didot – the typeface that typed the headings of the logos of all the major glossy magazines with history. Unfortunately, these are the conditions of the category: either you get into the general row, or you leave from there, but even so, your product must be different, must be different.
Let’s go back to the zoos. In this category, it is also quite difficult to do something new (another question is whether it is necessary). Since the zoo as a commercial organization offers a very specific product – a demonstration of animals, the solutions for its identity must correspond to the commercial proposal: images of animals and everything connected with it – paws, tails, recognizable colors.
Finding himself in difficult categorical conditions, working with limited tools and trying to keep up with fashion trends and trends, the designer often falls into what once “already existed”. In this situation, it is especially symptomatic that the main information noise around controversial situations with similarities is initiated by the professional community.
My final thoughts boil down to very simple and obvious words:
- tolerance towards the work and time spent by your equally gifted colleague;
- working with meanings in a situation of overproduction of forms becomes more relevant. The main thing is shaping and a coherent and thoughtful story.
Ultimately, nobody is right. You just need the public discussion to turn into a plus sign (let’s discuss), and not end with the destruction of the reputation of any of us (as happened with the Olympic logo designer Kenziro Sano, the scandal with which provoked the writing of this note).