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The Imitation Game

September 14, 2015 — Ben Glotzer

We have all heard the well-known adage coined by Charles Caleb Colton, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” We can appreciate this concept in theory, but when it comes to design and ownership of original creative content, there is a very thin line between imitation and inspiration—the latter being fundamental to creative development.

There is a long history of image appropriation in the fine art world. Think Andy Warhol’s 1962 Campbell’s Soup Cans, one of the most recognized icons of the pop art movement. Even Picasso said, “Good artists copy, great artists steal.”

Although commercial design is rooted in fine art, this “imitation” mindset does not translate. The world of commercial design comes with realities like legality and copyright infringement—which are not particularly swayed by the flattery argument. This “imitation vs. inspiration” argument is currently projected on the global stage with Japan’s recent retraction of the emblem for their 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. The selected emblem (consisting of a “T” and a red dot symbolizing a beating heart) was scrapped amongst allegations that it was plagiarized from a logo that designer Olivier Debie created for the Belgian Theatre de Liege.

See for yourself.

It is virtually a carbon copy of Debie’s original design, down to the secondary slab serif typography. Unfortunately, stopping the presses on such a campaign is embarrassing and extremely costly for not only Japan, but also for their corporate partners who have already started to utilize the art in their own communications.

For the record, The Japanese designer responsible for the logo, Kenjiro Sano, denied plagiarizing this particular work, but has admitted to copying other works in the past for his clients.

On the brighter side, there has been an outpouring of new design submissions for the 2020 games on Japanese social media as the search for the next big idea is in the works.

As creative thinkers, we need to ask ourselves: can I build upon another’s work to create my own original? Does that constitute derivative work? How close is too close?

All great concepts come from somewhere, even if that somewhere is out of thin air. As designers in the commercial world, we are tasked to solve problems in new and creative ways faster, better and cheaper, which can compromise the creative process and result in direct or indirect imitation. We are constantly pulling from our go-to reference sites and resources for the next big idea. But we have to remember that in doing so, the creative gene pool gets smaller and smaller.

So the next time you are commissioned to design an Olympic emblem for the world stage, see it as an opportunity to visually celebrate the country’s heritage, culture, values, traditions and vision. Be inspired by everyone and everything, but utilize your influences to create a unique perspective that is all your own. This approach is the best form of flattery.

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