There’s a part of me that believes that there are only so many shapes, so many colours and so many musical notes (you get the gist) and that in a world brought increasingly together by the internet and social media, it’s almost impossible not to be influenced, consciously or unconsciously, by the creative works of others. The thought process came from looking at the work of Kenjiro Sano, the designer of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic logo which was abandoned shortly after it’s first global release amid accusations that it plagiarised a Belgian Theatre logo. Image shown here.


The logos are remarkably similar, but Sano insisted that his work was cultivated with consideration and care and that he had never seen the Théâtre de Liège logo before. I can’t imagine for one second that someone designing for a world audience could originate a design in a bare-faced copy. In this digital age you would never get away with it. Would you?

I felt terribly sorry for the designer. After all, a rectangle, a circle, The serifed ‘arm’ of the T? Simple elements, simply combined in a not unobvious layout. And then there were further accusations of similarity to an image created by Hey Studio in Barcelona, but the studio itself tweeted “We think it is just a coincidence. Both are a combination of geometry and synthesis and it is entirely possible for things to end up looking similar.” Matching my thoughts completely. However, it is an argument against over simplistic design.

But where does the responsibility lie? And in this day and age, why do people still think they can get away with plagiarising? It is the designer’s responsibility to research the market and to make sure their design isn’t overly similar to others that already exist. It’s in your clients interest, and if you value your reputation, your own! But how do you draw the line between ‘inspiration’, ‘homage’, ‘referenced’ and ‘COPY’? I believe it often comes down to license and commercial use or value. An homage can often lend a witty undertone to a piece of design, evoking a different era and inviting a new perspective but if there is a commercial value to the work then you need to take care.


The lines are not always clear and referencing others artwork in your own, even with significant changes, does not always mean that the ‘spirit’ of the artistic work is different enough from the original, to be deemed an original work in it’s own right. A great example of this is the Hope Poster created by Shepard Fairey during Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. The iconic image was likened to Jim Fitzpatrick’s ‘Che Guevara’ poster and was widely distributed in all media. However, the image was a stencil portrait based on a photo by Associated Press photographer Mannie Garcia. A messy court case and lies on Fairey’s part in order to avoid a pay out, ended in 300hrs community servcie and a $25,000 fine. Fairey did alright for himself in the end and interestingly his artwork was parodied many times, including by himself with the Hope poster for the Occupy movement.


So how do we avoid the pitfalls of plagiarism? Research the market, test your work against others out there, tread lightly with the stock images and most importantly, beware of using a single source as inspiration. If your motivation is parody or homage – make sure the message is significantly clear, especially if there is a commercial value to your work. For an interesting look at the world of design theft, take a look at the the website where the whole premise of the site is to ‘out’ outrageous design theft.

Featured image created by Tara Cloak using two circles, four squares, five rectangles and a triangle.