Been there, done that

Two encounters I’ve had recently with non-designers threw a spotlight on the way graphic designers think and act.

In a world dominated by plagiarism and sleaze, the best designers stand out for their determination to produce original work, says Adrian Shaughnessy

Two encount – ers I’ve had recently with non-designers threw a spotlight on the way graph ic designers think and act.

The first encounter was with someone who works for a medium-sized design group as an account handler. She told me she was intrigued – and surprised – to discover the lengths the designers in her company would go to in order to create original work.

She has a marketing degree that has given her a pragmatic business-centric view of the world. She is also aware of copyright law and understands that designers can’t simply copy the work of others.

But she struggles to see why her designers won’t reuse an idea rejected by a previous client on the grounds that each project requires a new, freshly minted response.

Now, we all know designers who will happily re-use ideas. And there are designers who will shamelessly copy the work of others. But it is nevertheless common to find designers – usually good ones – who are driven by an inner conviction that to have both professional and creative integrity, they must come up with something new every time (as far as this is possible in a Postmodern world where everything has been done already).

This ‘quirk’ makes designers an oddity in the business world, where anything goes as long as it shows a profit. An entrepreneur acquaintance of mine has made a lucrative career out of picking up other people’s ideas and turning them into successful businesses. He has no qualms about doing this: he says he has never had an original idea in his life, but he knows how to run businesses. And just so long as he avoids infringing someone’s copyright (which he is far too smart to do), he is regarded as a business genius. Yet any designer who behaved like this would be branded a sleazy copyist. As a recent D&AD jurist, I saw lots of work dismissed with the withering comment, ‘Seen it before’.

I mentioned that I’d had another illuminating encounter with a non-designer. This person had worked for one of our big design groups. During her time at this august institution she couldn’t help noticing that the first step in preparing for presentations – usually made to large wellheeled corporations – was the construction of mood boards. She also noticed that most of these were assembled using the work of other design studios. I’ve witnessed this in advertising agencies myself. I’ve been in briefing meetings where mood boards, using the work of small experimental design groups, are handed around. Many of the designers whose work is being used in such a cavalier way live on modest incomes, and they’d be surprised to find that their work was being slung about the chic boardrooms of big design groups and slick ad agencies.

So, what have we got here? On the one hand, we’ve got designers striving to create original and bespoke work, when a rehash would make life easier and increase profitability. And, on the other hand, we have designers who are happy to ‘use’ the work of other design ers to win lucrative business for themselves.

The impulse to create something new every time is what keeps design vibrant and evolving. The use of other designers’ work in mood boards can be seen, at best, as a helpful way to get shortsighted clients to see the inherent possibilities in a brief, and, at worst, as an example of lazy, exploitative misappro priation.

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