original sins?

Why do so many brand logos appear unoriginal?  Reading some press you’d think that graphic designers sit around all day either copying each other or channeling Vic Reeves: ‘that was my idea’.  Are we running out of ideas?  Is the media running out of stories?  Are strangely familiar logos coincidences, remixes or ripoffs?

Tempting as the brand theft narrative is there are other factors at work.  Designers work with the logical and the lateral seeking the ‘original’ – not just to impress their peers, but because an original and distinctive logo is more noticeable, memorable and protectable – a more effective and valuable brand property.  This search for originality is not quite the free-spirited enquiry of the fine artist, being at least in part anchored at some level to brand messages and requirements of the client brief.  Companies are rarely as unique as they would like to be and often want to communicate many of the same things. ‘Global’, ‘fast’, ‘efficient’, are just a few recurring themes (how many companies do not want to be seen as those things?). As global consumers we swim in an increasingly homogenous media soup (apologies for distasteful mixed metaphor), sharing the same cultural references, so perhaps it is not so surprising that brands are getting less distinct and that designers sometimes come to similar conclusions.

Originality conflicts are quite common, only hitting the headlines when media find sufficient embarrassment to rouse public interest.  The more high profile the brand, the greater the likelihood someone will rustle up a controversy.  ‘Where’s there’s a hit there’s a writ’ as they say in popular music.

Light-fingered design in four fine flavours  Brand burglary is rarely straightforward, coming in a variety of approaches:

Outright knockoffs Not every company (or designer) is a paragon of virtue.  Blatant theft is uncommon and unsustainable, but it is difficult to see the logo for Chinese search engine Goojje.com as much else.   Copyright law discourages most would-be thieves.  Harrods famously went to extreme lengths to prevent anyone, anywhere infringing copyright in its distinctive hand-lettered logo (although how bringing Venezuelan snack bars to book achieved anything beyond negative PR, however correct the legal case, is hard to fathom).

Subconscious copying is a staple of popular music dispute and may have been behind George Harrison’s alleged copying of the melody of The Chiffons’ song ‘He’s So Fine’ for ‘My Sweet Lord’ (see also more recently Satriani vs. Coldplay).  Subconscious copying is surely even more prevalent in our visual culture.  We all spend so much time looking, consciously and unconsciously absorbing images and iconography, increasingly from the same web sources.  As no-one can say for certain what they have and have not remembered, evidence for this in cases of apparent logo burglary is scant to nonexistent.

The Me-too is a subtler but more frequent form of copying.  Late entrants to growing markets sometimes appropriate the stylistic mores of the market leader to accelerate brand communication, taking something – as much as they dare – to help place the newcomer immediately within that market in the mind of the consumer.  It could be deduced (legal disclaimer: this based on inadequately researched assumptions and uninformed by fact) that the overall roundel form of the Costa Coffee logo came about in order to ape market leading global juggernaut Starbucks. Since such an element in itself is one of the commonest forms in graphic design it is not registerable in itself, but adopting it could have given Costa a small brand recognition leg-up.


Convergencewhere cultural/functional constraints influence design outcomes – can explain many apparent ripoffs. When the USSR ‘copied’ the Anglo-French Concorde’s extraordinary form for their TU-144 was it industrial espionage or functional convergence (the ogee wing shape being uniquely suited to supersonic flight)?  The measurable logic of engineering doesn’t quite apply with graphics, but cultural convergence can explain many cases.  Graphic designers use the signs, symbols, icons and clichés with the power to evoke meaning.  With logos the premium on simplicity works to distil imagery to the simplest forms.  The many layers of approval in large organisations also encourage generic approaches.  These factors may have been behind Quark’s embarrassing 2005 logo debacle, where similarities between its new symbol and the Scottish Arts Council’s (above) were striking to say the least.  It could have been copied – but it is also possible to imagine separate teams under similar influences arriving at the same elemental, inoffensively contemporary forms.


Flocking hell, this is personal! Working for Sedley Place Design back in nineteen-eightysomething, I had an idea for Picture Music, the then-new video distribution arm of EMI Music and only organisation that could genuinely distribute music worldwide.  This unique capability demanded more than the globe-based symbols then used by every aspiring business from AT&T to the local print shop.  Expressing ‘international’ through migrating geese seemed unique, and the fact that the formation made a ‘V’ for ‘Video’ was an extra bonus.  Client loved it.  Job done.  Around 18 months later a new identity was launched by Wolff Olins for French hotel chain Accor featuring… migrating geese.  As former Wolff Olins employees it seemed to us unbelievable that this could be mere coincidence!  A letter of protest dispatched to Wally O. elicited a postcard ‘comedy response’: “cor blimey guv’nor dunno what came over me” (quote may not be exact) – neatly sidestepping the issue.  Much gnashing of teeth, but as civilized people (and copyright law being even sketchier then) we took the matter no further…

To symbolise the 2005 UK Presidency of Europe, Johnson Banks designed of a flock of 15 swans representing member states (below).  It passed legal checks but on the day of launch ultra-right wing anti-Europe think tank The Bruges Group claimed their flock of geese had been nicked.  Embarrassing, but it emerged that The Bruges Group had never registered the design and had not used it for 14 years.  A slight air of suspicion may have lingered in the minds of cynics, but as it turned out the issue was no more than a minor PR hiccup.

So at least four times (that I know of) this same idea has come up.  I know that mine was not based on anything I had seen before. Was it the original?  I can’t be certain of the process that led to the Accor logo, or how The Bruges Group got theirs, but Johnson Banks (producers of much of the UK’s best graphic design) are the last agency to be short of an idea.  Unlikely as it looks, it is quite possible that four design teams at different times came to similar solutions because each was looking for a less hackneyed communication of ‘international’ and ended up focusing on a similar palette of ‘signifiers’…

Not seeing eye to eye A more surprising coincidence emerged with an early Alembic brand project for an image research company serving the UK advertising and design industries.  Pre-Google, image search involved physically touring and searching London’s specialist image libraries.  The brush-drawn logo (below left) brought this activity to life in a literal, but striking way.  Whilst ‘logos with eyes’ were not unusual, I was confident there were no running-eye-for-a-head symbols about.  A year or two later a recruitment agency appeared sporting an identical idea.  My client’s resources were insufficient for legal action and in truth the two markets did not directly conflict.  Annoying though!   The image search agency no longer exists but the recruitment business still trades, although now under a new (and very dull) generic identity featuring a much-copied graphic cliché, the ‘inverted swoosh’.  I would like to think they ditched ‘my idea’ out of shame/guilt, but am guessing they just decided it was a little eccentric for their wider market aspirations.

Does it really matter? Ideas that work will continue to reappear, with and without additions/twists that lift them above the ‘steal’.  Recycling, sampling, remixing, ‘quoting’, ‘reinventing’ and the ‘tribute’ are all part of our culture, more so now than ever  – and all involve a sometimes acceptable element of theft.  Pure ideas are notoriously difficult to control and legally protect.  In brand identity, it is the visualisation – the unique assembly of word/s, colours and marks – that is registered.  The idea of ‘a flock of geese’, ‘the colour red’ or ‘the word Shell‘ are not protectable in themselves.  Even with proper legal registration, if enough people think your logo is a copy, you may have to revert to Plan B anyway (as did Quark).  So what to do?

• Designers need to strive ever harder for ‘original’: find the unique in the brief and bring that to life; consider more design directions than those readily apparent – simply have more ideas.  Be inspired by the approach of others maybe, but don’t steal solutions.  “It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation” (Herman Melville).

• Organisations launching new brands must consider the conflict between the safe solution and brand distinction – what everyone is happy with is most likely to be extant, common, unregisterable.  The more unusual solution takes more effort to establish, but is ultimately more effective.  Get a good, creative brand designer; get your brand registered; have a Plan B in case there is something spookily similar somewhere out there despite you, your legal team and your designer’s best efforts.

Others might copy your ideas, but unless you have money to burn on legal fees, get over it – imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

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