Appropriation in Design: How thin is the line?

Being a designer is being a pirate–you sail the proverbial seas of creativity, see some sweet design booty, plunder it, and make it your own. But, while the “be a pirate” philosophy encourages us to be influenced and inspired by the approaches of others (what better way to prove a design works than to see iterations of it and variations on its approach in other places/mediums), appropriation can very quickly lead to plagiarism. I want to clarify that I am not accusing anyone of plagiarism in this post, merely citing examples of appropriation that are useful in discussing the real difference and line between being inspired by a design and iterating your own, and mimicking or copying someone’s design without attention to the design’s intent or purpose. So, what is the difference between appropriation and plagiarism? Is there a way to clearly define what is acceptable inspiration and what is design piracy?

Botero is one of art's most famous appropriators. This is his "Monalisa", featuring his unique perspective.

Botero is one of art’s most famous appropriators. This is his “Monalisa”, featuring his unique perspective on an existing motif.

Paisley ( Some rights reserved by BrianJamesPhotography)
Botero Monalisa ( Some rights reserved by Micah & Erin)
Picture Frame ( Some rights reserved by eriwst)

According to William Denttrel in his 2005 article for the Design Observer Group, “In the world of design… there seems to be an implicit understanding that any original work can and will evolve into the work of others, eventually working its way into our broader visual culture” (Source). But,  when the derivation is essentially the same as the original, Denttrel’s ultimate point is that this is both “[sad] and wrong”.  Essence here is defined as the core of the composed design. Denttrel is comparing two images of the motif “bird in hand”. One is a stock image used by magazine STEP. The other is one in a series of photographs by artist Victor Schrager. Schrager’s well-known work has been exhibited in museums including the Whitney Museum of American Art, and it’s been published both in magazine and book form. Yes, you may copy type, color, tonality, but composition and intent are different. As curators of art and creators of art (yes, I afford presentation design the same status as other forms of design), shouldn’t we respect the rights of originators? Shouldn’t we look for opportunities to praise appropriation as opposed to mimicry?

Jason Carne defines the difference as follows:

“An artist’s style is not something that is instantly achieved, it’s something that takes years upon years of practice and experimentation to settle into….Hijacking someones personal motifs far exceeds that of simple idea theft, because you’re not just taking a design – you’re taking years of hard work away from someone for your own personal short-term gains.” (Source)

I believe we’ve reached a similar (though entirely different…arghh!) impasse in presentation design.  What makes appropriation more problematic in this field is the fact that as presentation designers, we are supposed to iterate from what we observe others doing. There’s only so many ways to convey a concept using Keynote or PowerPoint right? It is as important in presentation design to clearly define the line and also respect the creative efforts of others, especially in a medium that we’ve been conditioned to use in a peculiar way–choose your pre-made template and fill it in with your information. The problem with doing this with a set of slides is that mimicking type, color, and layout choices coupled with mimicking organization, tone, approach, and content (in the case I am featuring below, the only real change was to phrasing/wording) can cross the appropriation line and move straight into plagiarism.

Recently, on Slideshare, this debate has come to the surface due to some perceived similarities between the work of one designer, SlideComet and another Illiya, aka The Presentation Designer. Both Alex Rister  and slide superstar Eugene discussed the similarities between the decks, and I do believe in this case, that Illiya’s concerns were warranted and his response legitimate. He also provides a useful solution. As he put it:

“[W]hat I will continue to do is work on improving my own unique style, take inspiration certainly but I will always strive to keep things fresh and original. This is what I would urge others to do. There will always be the similar fonts, and colour schemes but what you can’t follow is personality and style.” (Source)

However, reader, I do want to point out that there are more problematic examples of appropriation found on Slideshare and that it’s high time that presentation designers have a dialogue about this subject. When a work copies the essence of a designer’s original, we’ve moved beyond using similar tools in different ways. Check out the following example I found while perusing Slideshare. You can see the original first and then the derivative. The derivative changes only a few of the words used and employs the same type, color choices, and layout decisions. To me, this definitely dilutes the message of the derivative. The fact that the derivative was featured as a top presentation of the day further complicates the situation. I actually would never have seen the deck or recognized it had Slideshare not featured it.

“10 Ways to Be a Marketing Genius Like Lady Gaga” vs. “10 Ways Librarians Can Be a Marketing Genius Like Lady Gaga”

This is the original deck by Jesse Dee.

This is the derivative by Gwyneth Jones.

What do you think? Does this cross the line between appropriation and plagiarism?

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3 thoughts on “Appropriation in Design: How thin is the line?

  1. […] Following up with our conversation on Monday about design plagiarism, Chiara Ojeda posted “Appropriation in Design: How Thin Is The Line?” […]

  2. Hi Chiara. Great post I think you summed up the debate perfectly. As I said on Eugene’s blog – balancing creativity over inspiration is the true challenge a designer faces ever day.

    We can’t always be super creative all the time it is just not possible. Sometimes we must look for other sources of inspiration. My advice to those who would look to emulate or follow would be – ‘be inspired but other work but have a goal to carve out your own distinct voice or style’.

    Yet, this is not always possible, certainly if you’re just starting out it is more difficult to do this without further experience and from learning from some of the best.

    But it is more much rewarding to work on yourself and focus on developing your own work, rather than that of others.

    What I would say in the case of Jesse Dee’s deck is that Gwyneth Jones is a lesser copy of, rather than being influenced by or inspired by – it takes more from his original deck than it gives back such as; using the very same images, copying the same layout.

    Could this person created that same deck on Lady Gaga but done it his own unique way?

    Certainly, he could have.

    I’m glad you thought my points were valid. I rarely speak out and on this occasion I felt that I had too. I’m really happy it’s brought about such a positive debate.

    P.S you spelt my name name wrong it’s illiya and not illya. An easy mistake.

  3. Ay! I just fixed it, Illiya. As someone who has a name that is less than common and often misspelled, I apologize! I feel like design has inspired me to find creativity in ways I had not previously imagined. Perhaps it’s because my background is writing and I’ve always classified myself as an analytical or critical writer and not a “creative writer”. I believe one way we can work towards consistent originality is to look for inspiration outside of our genre or medium. What can we learn, for instance, about designing slides from studying architecture or horticultural design?

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