Design plagiarism: Myth or reality?

“Did you see this?”

First, one message. Then two. Then three. All asking if I had seen the August 18 front page of The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi, which bore a striking resemblance to a front page I designed for The Huntsville Times in June of 2010.

Both pages are built around a giant white letter “R” on a black background. Both pages feature a small, conversational paragraph in place of a traditional headline, punctuated with key words in red.

PollenAt first, I wanted to avoid any kind of public reaction to The Clarion-Ledger page. I responded to the messages and privately shared the page with a couple of people. My low-key response stemmed from a lingering sense of embarrassment after a similar incident earlier this year, when a front page from The Gaston Gazette with a centerpiece about pollen caught a friend’s eye because it looked so much like another 2010 page we did in Huntsville. I posted that example on my Facebook page without giving it enough thought — I simply found it amusing and meant only to share it within my circle of friends. What I ended up with was yet another lesson not to post anything on social media that I don’t want to become public.

The pages quickly ended up on Charles Apple’s popular visual journalism blog. That post subsequently generated a public response from Steve Cavendish, now news editor at Nashville Scene. Neither Charles or Steve, both of whom I greatly respect, were obligated to notify me in advance that they were going to write about these pages or ask for my opinion, of course. And they didn’t.

Still, I thought others might assume I had initiated the commentary and felt uncomfortable about publicly calling out the unidentified designer of The Gaston Gazette page. And I didn’t want the same thing to happen with The Clarion-Ledger page.

So then, you might be asking yourself right now, why in the world am I writing this very public post for SND.org?

BigRWell, as the days and weeks went by, I began to think that maybe ignoring the issue was a lazy response. That maybe something useful could come from opening up about how I feel about these pages. I don’t know who designed The Gaston Gazette with the yellow pollen centerpiece. I don’t know who designed The Clarion-Ledger page with the big “R.” I only hope that any awkwardness I cause for them by writing this will be offset by the value of a candid, healthy discussion.

With that goal in mind, I want to tell you exactly how I feel about those Gazette and Clarion-Ledger pages.

More importantly, I have also solicited opinions from a handful of professionals about the incredibly thin line between inspiration and copying. You can read their responses to an informal survey below.

This will be an incomplete exercise without you, however. What we really want is for you to share your thoughts, ideas and opinions by commenting here. So I’ll echo the key words in red from that 2010 Huntsville Times page … How will you participate?

The Huntsville Times pages

I clearly remember designing both the pollen and race pages in question at The Huntsville Times. In both cases, I wished for compelling photos that I didn’t have. And both situations required quick solutions due to rapidly approaching deadlines.

SJBlackoutI don’t consider either solution to be terribly original. In fact, looking back, the race page with the big “R” is similar in some ways to an opinion page I did years earlier at the Sun Journal in Lewiston, Maine, about a power blackout.

I often reach for color and typography to help communicate a concept. And in this way, I have certainly been inspired by the previous work of countless others.

And yet, in both of these specific examples I took inspiration directly from the content I was working with. The stories led me to the visual solutions and I tried to execute them in a compelling way.

I felt two things when I saw such similar pages from The Gaston Gazette and The Clarion-Ledger: A slight sense of flattery and a lot of curiosity.

I mean, let’s be honest, it’s nice to think something you have done might inspire others. So I certainly didn’t feel angry about it.

Still, the pages were so similar, right down to the smallest details, I wondered if the designers enjoyed working on them? Did they learn something from the process? Did they make a connection between the content and the visual solution or did they simply wrap a design they liked around a story they had in hand?

When I was working on that Huntsville race page, then-editor Kevin Wendt wanted to get people’s attention and engage them in an important community issue. I could have used file photos of community leaders, but this was really about an issue and not specific people. Visually, I wanted to represent a racial divide without offending readers. The typography simply provided a framework to do that. So in my mind, the design was really about the contrast of black and white and calling attention to importance of the topic, not so much about “R” is for “Race.”

On The Clarion-Ledger page, “R” is for “Rape.” Does it work? Maybe this page also calls readers’ attention to an important topic in that community. I’ll let you decide. Either way, I am certain The Clarion-Ledger readers did not give a rip that the design was so similar to a page we did three years ago in Huntsville. In other words, my concern is for the designer and the process, not the result.

Years ago when I worked at the Lexington Herald-Leader, I often stayed late after my news design shifts and redesigned the pages I had just worked on, trying to figure out how I could have made them better or to practice the techniques I saw on my favorite pages in the SND annuals. It was a great learning exercise and the reworked pages lived only in a folder on my computer, never used for publication.

My advice to students and young designers: Inspiration is all around you. Yes, looking at and even recreating the work of others can be invaluable. Study the details, add the methods to your personal tool box. But most importantly, ask yourself how and why the visuals worked to communicate a concept or story. Think about how you might apply the ideas in a different way or put your own stamp on it. When it’s time to design something real, put the examples away and clear your mind. Not because some designer somewhere is going to get mad if you copy their work, but because doing your own thing is a hell of a lot more fun.

Survey

I sent the following six questions to more than 50 respected artists, designers and art directors and these are the answers I received:

Do you believe there is such a thing as visual plagiarism?

“I think it absolutely exists. Unfortunately, like obscenity, it’s hard to define. The line between influence and plagiarism is awfully fuzzy and so much of what determines what side each instance falls on is intent. Even a serious designer would have a hard time distinguishing between the two unless they were there for the creation of the two pages.” — Benjamin Hoffman, New York Times

“No. Page designs are solutions to problems. The problem has been, is and always will be: How do I best communicate this group of content that I have to work with? As such, designs are heavily dependent on the context in which they are deployed. Choosing the same tool for a different job doesn’t make it plagiarism. It just makes it lazy. Or — to play the devil’s advocate for a moment — brilliant, provided that the tool someone else created to solve their problem more elegantly solves yours.” — Emmet Smith, Cleveland Plain Dealer

“Sure, I believe there is. But I think I’m a lot more liberal with where that line is drawn than some. In the past couple of years, there have been accusations in our industry and out of “plagiarism,” when I don’t think it’s been warranted. For instance, illustrating a story about BBQ by running a photo of meat shot from above isn’t, in my book, any kind of plagiarism; it’s just unoriginal. Running the same clichéd headline at 200 points on a sports front isn’t plagiarism of any sort; it’s just, in most cases, lazy. People think alike. Brilliant designers and photographers think alike; so do mediocre designers and photographers. ” — Tim Ball, consultant (currently working with Digital First Media redesign team)

“Sure. It’s just copying someone else’s work verbatim and passing it off as your own. ” — Tim Frank, Gannett Newspapers, Asbury Park

“I think there is such a thing as visual plagiarism as it relates to print and online presentation, but the bar has to be pretty high to achieve it. You really have to steal a concept completely. Simply taking inspiration from someone else’s work to improve your own is not plagiarism. ” — Jay Judge, Baltimore Sun

“If design is problem solving and every problem is different, then every design solution must be different.  Design plagiarism happens when a designer skips the problem solving process and skips right to someone else’s ending. ” — Ananda Spadt, Meredith

Do you believe that recreating the work of others’ can be a valid learning tool?

“I believe it is the single best learning tool there is. For all of the various training I’ve had in my life, nothing has taught me more than working with the fantastic designers I currently sit with. I look at their stuff, they look at my stuff, we share insights into how we arrived at conclusions, and yes, on occasion, we do reasonable facsimiles of each others’ work either for training purposes or because the design they had is so uniquely appropriate to the current project. ” — Benjamin Hoffman

“Yes. ‘If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants’ and all of that. By recreating great work, it’s easier to understand the processes by which it came together and in turn apply those lessons to your own work. Ideally this work is done in a practice or classroom setting, but not everyone has that luxury. ” — Emmet Smith

“It can be valuable. I’d shy away from saying that it would be valuable to do for publication, but if you see a technique somewhere that you’d like to try and perfect, attempting to recreate it can add a valuable tool to your arsenal for a future project.” — Tim Ball

“I had to learn to recreate a painting in art school to understand how the painter used color. It was useful then.” — Tim Frank

“When time allows, drawing inspiration from other designs as part of the creative process will often take you to a better place. When I am strapped for time and need a design nudge to get me going, I will look through my SND and SPD books for ideas. I will insert elements to get the ball rolling. Some things might work. Some will not. I find this exploration opens the door to better ideas.” — Jay Judge

“I graduated with a photojournalism degree and accepted a job as a designer at the Abilene Reporter-News. I was constantly looking for any inspiration to create something unique. I looked online (newseum.org,newspagedesigner.com) and in the SND annual winners publication, but then I started realizing there was more to design than trying to recreate someone else’s work. My inspiration started coming from my surroundings, what I was reading, artwork and learning more about design and typography.” — Amanda Reiter, consultant (currently working with Digital First Media redesign team)

“I’ll admit it, I learned to design by recreating pages in the SND Awards Annual in my high school newspaper and yearbook. Everyone in the program did, those SND books were our design textbooks. In the end, we had created cheap shadows of amazing originals*, but it was an invaluable learning experience.  It is hard to look at an image and be able to see all the steps it would take to recreate that exact image.  In photography, you can look at a photo and “read the light” by assessing the shadows and the reflections.  When you are learning to design, I think it is important to learn to “read” other people’s designs to understand their process. The issue with plagiarism is that copying the original leaves out half the design process.  You’ve looked at good design, but you’ve forgotten to address your own unique design problems.  So if you are just learning to design, go ahead and copy to learn how the piece was create … but then put that design in a drawer and start again, this time incorporating your own ideas and requirements into your work.” — Ananda Spadt

*I apologize to anyone circa 2001 who caught the occasional resemblance of the Omaha Central High School Register to the Hartford Courant.

How do you distinguish the difference between inspiration and copying?

“Good luck with ever doing this correctly. There was an instance a year or two back of Wayne Kamidoi designing a section front for a story on Pacquiao/Mayweather. He designed a beautiful front, it went to press, and the next day Lee Yarosh was confused to see a nearly identical copy of a design he had done for a P/M story in the paper a number of weeks’ prior being re-used in the paper again. The thing is, Wayne didn’t re-use or copy it. In fact, he was on vacation when the original came out and he had not even seen it. Yet the pages are so close it’s eerie. Everyone who knows those two guys knows they have rather different styles, but for that story they imagined almost the same thing. A third-party would say one copied the other, but I assure you that did not happen.

In other instances, I think it is, again, mostly about intent. I might pick out elements of a design from somewhere and incorporate them, but I would never take more than one idea from anyone else’s work. If you suddenly find yourself with the same pullquote style, same picture placement, same illustration style, etc. all on one layout, then you just plagiarized someone.” — Benjamin Hoffman

“Who cares? Did you clearly and effectively communicate?” — Emmet Smith

“To me, the distinction comes when you look at intent. It’s pretty obvious when someone designs a page and forces the content to conform to a pre-conceived visual. (To be fair, this happens all too often even when not attempting to copy someone else’s work.) It’s also pretty obvious when the tiniest of details are copied, for no apparent reason, that someone is designing with tunnel vision, looking closely at the original package. We need to be better than this.” — Tim Ball

“What did you bring to it? How did you make it your own? Make sure you are evolving the idea and give credit where it’s due.” — Tim Frank

“I do think there is a difference between inspiration and copying. Inspiration is looking at someone’s work and taking a vibe or putting your own spin on an idea. Example: A chalkboard cover has been done over and over. If you take the idea of a blackboard and put your own spin on it, that can be something unique. Nobody owns a chalkboard or an x-ray or baseball stitching. But it’s what you do with those things that makes them unique.

I also believe that those of us in the industry who are looked to as leaders should be held to higher standards. Stealing from another paper’s identity or borrowing items from someone’s InDesign library is not acceptable. Stealing an exact headline and main visual combo is not acceptable. Copying a design to the point where it looks like you used tracing paper is not acceptable. When we do these things we send the wrong message to the younger designers.” — Vince Chiaramonte, Buffalo News

“Straight up copying is wrong. That said, there are some ideas that simply are not original. Not every elegantly-executed, award-winning page constitutes an original idea.” — Jay Judge

“As I have heard multiple times throughout my career, copying anything is unethical, whether it is words or design. If you want to copy someone else’s designs, make it better.” — Amanda Reiter

With all the other challenges we face now, how concerned should be when someone directly copies an infographic, illustration or design?

“The best solution is to do your best to be the person leading the pack rather than following it. I think style is somewhat invisible to readers (they only notice when it’s awful) but to designers, and potential employers, it is fairly easy to separate out the drawers from the tracers.” — Benjamin Hoffman

“If they’re copying original reporting from an infographic without crediting, very concerned. That is clearly plagiarism. Design? I’m only concerned if it’s an oft-used crutch — a pattern of laziness — that takes the place of more bespoke work.” — Emmet Smith

“We should be concerned when someone in one of our newsrooms does this — with clear intent — and doesn’t see anything wrong with it. If someone I was managing did this, even once, I’d see it as a failure on my part. It’s important to have this conversation here, but it’s more important that it happens in real newsrooms, in person, to ensure that everyone on staff subscribes to the same standards and ethics.” — Tim Ball

“Did it harm you in some way?” — Tim Frank

“If a graphic or illustration is truly original to the point that it’s groundbreaking and distinctive, it should not be duplicated. For example, if Joe Flacco had decided to leave the Ravens, I would not have suggested we copy the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s Lebron cover. It was original. Personally, I can only recall one incident in which we tried to replicate an original design of another publication. In that situation, our designer actually messaged the designer of the original page and asked if he minded if we used his concept. My recollection is that the designer was pleased to get the message and saw no problem borrowing the concept.” — Jay Judge

Has your work ever been copied? If so, how did you feel about it?

“I like to think of myself as a minimalist. Some might even say my pages are spartan. I do everything I can to put the focus on the words and the pictures and stay out of the way. I see my job as pointing reader where to look rather than doing cartwheels to amuse them. So copying me would be hard. Or very easy. Take your pick.” — Benjamin Hoffman

“Yes. Flattered.” — Emmet Smith

“It’s somewhat flattering to see your ideas have influenced someone else. And it can be really interesting to see where it goes.” — Tim Frank

Do you have any other thoughts on this topic you’d like to share?

“Good designers look at all the pages they see and take something out of them. Some sort of inspiration or, in the case of bad designs, a lesson in what not to do. Before people decide that something is stolen, they should consider the concept of influence, both conscious and unconscious. My N.F.L. training camp preview this year was virtually identical to the previous season’s preview until I thought “wait have I done this before?” I went into our archives and found a page that looked exactly the same, with a big silhouette of the SAME player. So I came within a few minutes of copying myself. I guess my point is, ideas come from a lot of places and the tendency of some to point fingers and declare something to be plagiarism may often be slightly off the mark.” — Benjamin Hoffman

“I suppose NPD is somewhat responsible for giving access to idea borrowers. Still, I’d rather share than be protected in the dark.” — Tim Frank