Improve on the original

How do you take inspiration from someone else’s work without ripping them off?

A few years ago, a friend of mine returned from Hong Kong bearing gifts. As a joke, he’d bought me a fake gold ‘Rolex’ watch from a market stall. It looked stupendously garish and ugly, too gauche for even the blingest of rap stars. And somehow the fact that it had cost just $5 made it seem all the more ludicrous. Once we’d stopped chuckling, it ended up in a bottom drawer. Eventually, I gave it to someone as an inappropriate birthday present, and they probably ended up doing the same. Who knows, it may still be doing the rounds.

It’s a trivial example, but it illustrates the point. Producing a poor-quality copy of something – whether that’s a physical object or an idea – undermines and devalues the original. It’s telling that back-street counterfeiters usually target goods that are overpriced in the first place – replica football shirts, brand-name sunglasses, luxury leather goods, chi-chi fashion labels. And it’s quite amusing how they attempt to take refuge from copyright laws with their feeble misspellings. But by peddling these inferior copycat goods, they are cheapening the originals, chipping away at their exclusivity, dulling their sparkle.

While I wouldn’t dream of likening the design industry to a dodgy market stallholder, there are certainly times when it also needs to pay a little more respect to intellectual property. Admittedly, these are very muddy waters. In an industry where ideas are the major currency, often it’s hard to tell – or certainly prove – just where they came from. If one person comes up with an original concept and a second person radically improves it, who should get the credit? And if we believe in zeitgeist, or a prevailing contemporary style, where do you draw the very thin line between being hip to the latest aesthetic and simply jumping on the bandwagon?

Illustrators are particularly vulnerable. It’s a tough way to make a living at the best of times, but even when you’ve worked hard to establish your own particular niche, the chances are you’ll soon be crowded out by a small band of unscrupulous pencil-brandishers, keen for a slice of the action.

Take someone like Paul Davis. He’s hugely talented, his work is edgy, original and sits wonderfully in the context of design. Davis has two books of collected work out at the moment (Them & Us and Blame Everyone Else), his drawings have been featured in several major advertising campaigns, as well as the award-winning Channel 4 annual report. I assumed he’d be spread out on a Bahamian beach enjoying the fruits of his labours by now. But he’s not. In a way, he’s become a victim of his own success, as many less inventive illustrators take on his deliberately spare style, and do their utmost to mimic his distinctive, childlike handwriting. As a result, this look has become overplayed, and Davis, rather unfairly, has been forced to reinvent himself. Similarly, a few years ago, an elegant, 1950s-inspired style of illustration – part comic book, part knitting-pattern cover – was much in vogue. At first fresh and unusual, it was soon ubiquitous, with ski-panted, Audrey Hepburnesque creatures, rendered in strong, flat colours holding court on greetings cards, calendars, ads, brochures and magazines. This has now been superseded by a bold photographic outline style, pioneered by the wonderful Airside Studios, and evident on everything from iPod advertising to Bebel Gilberto CD covers.

OK, design is as capricious and cyclical as fashion. Quirks, looks, typefaces, photographers, illustrators – even approaches to writing – go in and out of vogue like flared trousers. But wouldn’t design be more varied and interesting if we were prepared to go against the grain, to develop our own signatures? Breathe in the cultural atmosphere by all means, but when you breathe out, make sure you’ve added something of yourself.

As a designer, there’s nothing more lazy or cynical than to commission a photographer, illustrator or writer to copy a particular style. It shows a distinct lack of imagination, and while it may be the cheaper option, you end up looking and feeling cheap. It’s only right that you acknowledge the original, and where possible, invite that very person to come in and contribute. Even then, you should look to move things on together, to run with existing themes rather than simply jogging on the spot.

Is it that time already? What would I do without my trusty Timex? And the great thing is, I’m totally confident it’s the real thing.

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