On Design Theft

Back when I was doing design work for clients, it seemed like my work would get re-purposed by fledgling and not-so-fledgling designers every month. Sometimes I'd get a tip in my email about a theft that someone saw, or sometimes the offenders would link the assets right off my client's website, but regardless of how I found out about the theft, it'd piss me off more than anything else. I was the one who opened Photoshop, I cranked through iteration after iteration, I thought of execution details in the shower, I stayed up late at night, and then someone else just takes all that work and passes it off as their own. Sure, usually there were some slight modifications, but designers can always tell when someone else is using their design. It's sort of like a parent being able to identify their baby's cry while all the other babies are crying as well.

Lack Of Understanding

A few friends and I were the co-founders of 9rules, one of the largest independent blog networks of its day. I designed the fairly well-known (if you had a blog back in the mid-2000s!) 9rules leaf logo, which, to this day, is still the only good thing I've ever made while using Illustrator. For some reason, this was my most copied design ever. Toyota copied it for a yearly conference they run. Hell, it's even used as the logo for a mall in South Africa.

The dumbest thing about using the 9rules leaf logo for something other than 9rules is that the logo had a specific meaning. We had 9 principles we followed with the startup so there were 9 leaves. The design was meant to resemble a '9' and an 'r' side by side. The colors meant something, too. The logo represented our startup, it wasn't some arbitrary swoosh or vector swirl, we spent a lot of time on it and it was unique to our business.

When companies steal a design made for something else, they skip the part where they toil over the design and develop a deep love and appreciation for it. In 2009, Jason Fried wrote a blog entry about why you shouldn't copy them or anyone else. Here's a snippet.

"Here’s the problem with copying: Copying skips understanding. Understanding is how you grow. You have to understand why something works or why something is how it is. When you copy it, you miss that. You just repurpose the last layer instead of understanding all the layers underneath."

Copying someone else's designs, the way Samsung did with Apple's interface and industrial designs, skips over the whole part about why they were like that in the first place. Why did a designer throw out 20 iterations and pick the 21st design to be the one to ship? What led them to the those specific conclusions and insights? What down-the-road thinking influenced the design? Samsung doesn't know why Apple went with a homescreen with a fixed row at the bottom, they just know that the iPhone is hot and they want all their phones to look like the iPhone in the eyes of consumers. That's why they stole Apple's interface designs: to short-circuit the innovation process and jump straight into the line ahead of everyone else.

I really don't care about patents or trademarks or trade dress or any of that. To me, a designer, it's just about honor. Deciding to use someone else's pixels as your own is not just lazy, but it's dishonest. It's a slap in the face. And that's why I'm glad Samsung owes Apple over a billion dollars, because so much design theft happens in the world, it's about time someone or some company got knocked down a few pegs because of it. This victory isn't just a victory for Apple, it's a victory for every designer who has been ripped off by people who didn't care or thought they could get away with it. Tonight it's clear that sometimes they can't.

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