Originality in Logo Design

“Never waste a stroke.”

That’s the best piece of advice you’ll ever get in logo design. However, it’s also advice that can inadvertently get you in trouble. Draw a blue circle on the screen and you’ve just stolen the Blaupunkt logo. Draw a yellow line and you’re copying Visa. Draw a black swoosh and you’re ripping off Nike. The less intricacies involved in creating your masterpiece, the more likely it is that someone has already created it.

This subject has resurfaced in my head this week because of a couple of questionable logo unveilings, and I think it deserves some discussion. First, let’s go over the three categories of what might be considered “logo theft”:

The shameless pixel-for-pixel ripoff

Master illustrator Josh Williams posted earlier this week about a company called MaxMost.com who was displaying as their logo an exact pixel-for-pixel copy of the logo he had earlier created for SquareSpace. The two logos are pictured below:

It is obvious, even to the untrained eye, that the similarities here are no coincidence. Everything is perfectly identical, right down to the shading of the elements. This sort of theft is not very common, because it is a) blatantly illegal, b) blatantly immoral, c) hardly defensible, and d) easily discoverable. For these reasons, it is almost never the fault of the company who is displaying the logo and can almost always be traced back to a dishonest person (we won’t call him/her a “designer”) outside the company who was contracted to produce something.

If you run across this sort of theft, it’s best to contact the company with your complaint, but be fully prepared for them to honestly have no knowledge of the theft. Logo theft is a crime. Hiring someone who commits logo theft unbeknownst to you is very unfortunate, but hardly a crime. It is, however, the company’s responsibility to rectify this theft the instant it is verified. To MaxMost’s credit, they appear to have dealt with this incident satisfactorily as of the time of this writing.

The independent, inadvertent facsimile

This is perhaps the most frustrating logo design pitfall that can affect a company. In a nutshell, an organization spends a lot of time and money on a new identity (whether in-house or through an agency) only to launch it and find out the exact same mark already exists elsewhere in the world. This situation bubbled up this week with the unveiling of Quark’s new logo. As seen below, it bears a striking resemblance to the identity for the Scottish Arts Council:

I am not inclined to believe that Quark, being so involved in the design community, would intentionally rip off any other organization’s logo, let alone a a non-profit entity like the Scottish Arts Council. Is it possible that whoever designed the Quark logo has once seen the Scottish Arts Council logo and it is buried somewhere in his/her collective unconscious? Sure, but it’s certainly a stretch to infer that there was any foul play here.

This is the worst sort of situation in identity design because a) it’s an identical mark, and b) in most cases, you aren’t going to know about the existence of the other mark until the design process is over and the whole world gets a peek. By this time, a company like Quark is already out probably five to seven digits depending on design fees and the cost of any materials or campaigns that have already been produced.

Most serious design firms will do a bit of due diligence to verify that their creations have not already been created before, but there are limits to this sort of research. It’s unfortunate, yet completely understandable, to me how the Scottish Arts Council logo slipped through this test. That said, there is certainly a strong case now that Quark is in the wrong if they decide to use this logo moving forward.

The inspired mutation

This is by far the most common form of logo dispute. A designer has consciously examined hundreds of logos in his or her life and subconsciously absorbed thousands more from billboards, magazines, and all the other distractions of capitalist life, and when asked to create one for a client, he or she draws on these influences to create something which may or may not be judged as “original” in the end.

When a designer succeeds in this endeavor, he or she creates something which passes the general public’s originality test, whether or not any existing influences are apparent. When the designer fails, however, the work is viewed as a derivative ripoff. The line between success and failure in this case is often fuzzy, as shown below in this illustration:

The logo on the left is one I designed as Creative Director for Seasonticket.com, an online video startup back in 2000 owned by Howard Schultz, founder and chairman of Starbucks. The logo on the right is the mark unveiled by the Seattle Supersonics right after they were purchased in 2001 by, guess who… Howard Schultz. The Sonics contracted a local Seattle design firm, Hornall Anderson, to design the mark, and I of course can’t say for sure whether theft was involved, but I do know Howard liked the Seasonticket logo quite a bit, and I also know he handpicked the firm to perform the redesign (usually the NBA does it), so I of course can’t help but be suspicious. When you go to Sonic games, even the 3D animation of the logo on the arena screens is almost identical.

If I was a litigious person, I’d consider taking action, but for now, I just don’t drink Starbucks coffee. And in case you’re wondering, no, Howard does not own the rights to the Seasonticket logo. And heck, for all I know, another very similar logo already existed before I created that one.

Anyway, enough about that particular situation. It pissed me off when it happened, but I’m over it. Unfortunately though, this same situation occurs almost every day and given that sometimes the marks aren’t exactly identical, there’s often not a lot you can do about it.

What’s the solution?

I wish I had the answer this ongoing and worsening problem, but for now, all you can do as a designer is to keep pushing yourself to be original. Like the look of that simple orange square you just billed $1500 for? Push yourself. Do something better. Tell yourself at every step in the design process that someone has undoubtedly already thought of this and what can you do to really set it apart. In design, and particularly logo design, the pessimistic axiom that “everything has already been done” is becoming more and more true, and it is only the virtuous designer who can continue to stand out in a sea of sameness.

So pushing yourself is one way to stay on top of things. Another is preparing for things to go wrong. If Quark has already spent a ton of money on materials containing their new logo, they may forgotten this step. All it took was one unveiling online for the Scottish Arts Council thing to come up. At this point, they need to either a) change their logo, b) fight it in court, c) offer the Scottish Arts Council a settlement (which may be just fine), or d) take their chances and do nothing. Option C may be the best bet, but the point is to anticipate these things in advance.

The best way, theoretically, to protect against all of these situations is some sort of global database of trademarked identities which can be matched automatically with algorithms. I believe, but am not sure, that the USPTO may have something like this either set up or in the works, but if a system like this could be perfected, we’d all feel a lot safer with our creations. It would catch a lot of ripoffs during the trademarking stage, but it would also be a great tool with which designers could “check” their work before even submitting it to a client.

Additional thoughts, suggestions, or insights are welcome in the comments.

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124 Responses:

  1. Logo Collisions

    Boing Boing’s comments on logo plagiarism reminded me of something I’ve noticed – there are several cases of companies or organizations that are in completely different fields having nearly identical logos.

  2. cidoc says:

    Originality in Logo Design

    Originality in Logo Design by Mike Davidson “Never waste a stroke.” That’s the best piece of advice you’ll ever get in logo design. However, it’s also advice that can inadvertently get you in trouble. Draw a blue circle on…

  3. Ken says:

    Great post, lots of interesting perspectives.
    I am currently working on a logo for the company I work for and it is a challenge not to give into the over used icons of logo land.
    THe problem is the clients usually like the familiar.
    I come from a painting background so am very much into the exploration of new expressions, but when you use commercial sofware to produce designs you are bound to come to similar conclusions. Illustrator will automatically brand your designs to the limitations and capabilites of the software.

    Of course I am still a newbie as a designer, my biggest limitation is tech skills.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Do you know what else is a big problem with theft and thieves? Spec site contests, particularly Worth1000. There are many “designers” (I use that term loosely) that thieve from existent artwork/designs. One of them, a user named “potion”, thieved his files right off of brandsoftheworld.com. Even better, his friends thieve off of HIM: user named ulahts being one of the “bigger” ones (he’s all over the spec sites and has used potion’s designs -and- mass-submits [that is he submits the same design to several clients at the same time). The sad part is that people allow it (except in potion’s case, where he was banned from Worth1000). Whatever you do? Stay away from those two idiots. You will NOT get anything original from them.

  5. ulahts says:

    In reply to Anonymous:

    Well, beside the fact that you are bringing serious accusations to my person you have no proof that could sustain your afirmations. The WorldWideWeb is so free and – oops- i can post whatever i want, whenever i want. Well, this is not quite how the things are.

    Once again Mr. Lackofinspirationfakebrainedimagination with – let me guess: 5 lclients in his portfolio? – tries to mud other’s identity because of his creativity impotence and because of his polute imagination, while trying to earn some fair and square money in some contests sustained in different market places, he can’t draw a thing using this sofisticated graphic software (And he wonderes: why the heck Paint isn’t used for such things???)

    Dissapointing and that “term loosely” you would better make a tag and hang it on your WACOM (try Wikipedia for WACOM) every time you post a thing anywhere in this world. No go get your bag and go back to school and bring me some good grades.

  6. […] Davidson has a great summary on logo design, which covers the principles, and more importantly addresses the difference between […]

  7. Robert says:

    I am currently in college making tables on the side for a little extra cash, the tables I make are mostly basketball arenas. I was told in a forumn that is illegal for me to paint these courts because I am using the college logo, even though I hand paint the whole table. Is this illegal?

  8. […] Templates – no way to design your identity One Olympics, similar logos Originality in Logo Design LogoWorks: Who is to […]

  9. Brian says:

    Great post. Just stumbled across it. (not literally….I mean…not from stumbleupon….damn this internet thing has gotten out of hand! :)

    I guess it’s all along the lines of “The Flinstones” > “The Simpsons” > “Family Guy” etc….

    Everything comes from something in the past…music (with samples), artwork, tv shows, books, etc….inspiration is always drawn from somewhere…I guess it’s just a matter of how blatantly you re-create that inspiration and whether or not you have the creativity and originality to add your own touch to it!

    It would suck to have a great logo stolen like that tho as you experienced….

  10. David says:

    Logo design is a most important part of graphic design. It should be perfect and according to the company services because the logo represents companies brands or corporate identities.
    Your logo should be attractive and massage conveying.

    I am impressed with your post nice one!

  11. I think it’s funny that frequently when I design a website for a small/start-up business, they want me to do a logo while I’m at it. It’s like they think that’s part of the design…it should be even more important than the site, in some cases!

  12. The originality of a logo can be confirmed if the idea behind a logo is explained.Interpretation of a logo gives it exclusive creativity.Always try to explain your logo in terms of your company goals and image.No one will be ever able to copy it.

  13. […] Originality in logo design, from Mike Davidson. […]

  14. […] Mike Davidson – Originality in Logo Design (tags: Logo design branding marketing) […]

  15. Kerblotto says:

    Every logo is derivative. I was puzzled by VW’s ‘autobahn for all’ logo. It looks like a little hitler head.

  16. Make illustrative logos. You’ll have far less trademark disputes and are much more likely to create something original.

  17. Hi guys, I was wondering, what’s the difference between an amateur who creates a professional logo and a professional who studied to create professional logos. Isn’t the end result what matters most? I have been designing for almost 6 years and none of my clients have staff over 5 people. I try my best to create something they can appreciate whether or not it looks like a visa, or paypal, coca cola, (please not these are just words) why do we remember these more than others? is it the brand, quality, popularity, influence by our friends or is there some secret society that whispers the names of these companies in your ears. I try very hard to do original stuff but sometimes I find a particular font or shape sticks in my mind and I end up scrapping and starting fresh. One thing I try not to do is use the same font twice.

  18. @ The BlackPearl: I think there’s hardly any difference at all, if you’re looking at the final results. It’s all about making the client happy, that’s it. If they like the logo, they dont care if your 6 yr old kid slapped it together. If they don’t like it, they aren’t going to care where you learned logo design. We remember companies like Coke b/c they’ve been spending millions of ad dollars since before you were born. The simplicity of the logo at the end of the ad helps it burn into our brain.

  19. So this might not go over well, but here goes: I think that designers need to get out more. They need to make awareness of and participation in popular culture part of their jobs. I’m sure that there are legions who will protest this as unfair, and I’m sure that there are lots of striking exceptions. But in my work teaching designers, and as an employer of designers, I have to say that the breed tends to be more introverted and more desperate to be original (by contrast to their advertising counterpart, the art director). This latter point, paradoxically, produces a tendency to ignore cultural context. To believe that the only true creativity is that which occurs in a vacuum. Once in awhile, this results in someone reinventing a well-worn wheel.

  20. Curious says:

    I realize this entry is a bazillion years old, but I can’t help but wonder if you designed a logo incorporating a snake wrapped around the earth on purpose. Are you a “chosen one”? If not, maybe your client was. Maybe that’s why he liked it and then ripped it off. Maybe you didn’t even know what you had done in designing that logo. But something tells me you did.

  21. Mike D. says:

    Curious: I think it’s time for your medication.

  22. jgeeoff says:

    i’ve been at this thing for over 30 years, and many designers i’ve met don’t do the one thing that’s actually one of the most important, research.
    i saw a tv article on a world-known agency chairman, and his one knock on the industry was that their isn’t good research anymore (that was over 5 years ago).
    inspiration is good, knowing what a company does is good, but when i was in school (many, many moons ago), we were taught that one of the reasons logo design was so expensive in many cases, was partially because of the time taken in research. there have been logo databases of both analog and digital varieties for several decades (and those paper things called books, earlier than i care to think). for many years now, we’ve been using technology as the grand excuse, “i can’t do that because my software doesn’t.” sound familiar? just because it takes over 2 hours to pour over reference books and logo websites, and magazines, etc., that doesn’t mean you’re finished–although ones head may feel that way. technology has made instant gratification too slow…
    yes, there are moments of true logo collision, but for the most part, i’ve seen blatant and accidental plagiarism, and near misses/hits that call to question the design industry as a whole, when dealing with businesses that were either burnt, or are moderately savvy about design. the companies that aren’t savvy–throngs that are cropped up and overtaking the more “sophisticated”), that could give a hoot about whether their logo is a rip-off or not.
    we can police as best we can, by not letting it go, no matter how old the situation is–let as many design-side and client-side people know that there has been either a violation, or that they may want to take a step back and try not to let their brand be diluted any further.
    my takeaway from all this is to start with the company interview, get as much unique data as possible–what unique benefits does the client have that can position them above/apart from the competition. Find out as much as possible about what should be your business partner. then incorporate that into a brand strategy that incorporates the development of a logo. take that information and thumbnail a thousand ideas, weed out the best ones, then research them to make sure your business partner is the unique entity the brand will represent them to be. and if this takes too much time. we all need to rethink where we are in this profession, and where the client is in trying to market their business.
    having said all that, it has happened many times that the ceo either states or even “sketches” what they “want.” once again, maybe it’s technology (i like to blame it a lot), it’s so much easier to give the client what they want, regardless of the repercussions, if any even come up…then if they do, it’s not by another company, it’s by designers…

  23. Joey Cosi says:

    A lot (not all) designers I’ve encountered normally look for inspiration before creating a logo. This has been normal to a lot of designers these days. Just like what has been said above, many designers do not research or rather their definition of “research” is by browsing through logo libraries not to make sure their logo isn’t similar to anyone else, but to grab those ideas and somehow change it up.

    It’s a vicious cycle that has been going on for a long time. Designers should learn to think about brand equity and how it affects their clients.

  24. Mahesh says:

    I have a client who want to go build a website and go online. His business is currently limited to local market, limited to a town. He has been using a logo for last 10 years, which was unique in the town. Now he wants go online and get customers from other than his town. This gave up a new issue of duplicate logos. He is afraid his if his logo is being used in any other part of the world. His logo didn’t have a business name and it was symbols. Going online means his logo should be unique in the world.

    I searched and searched for duplicates of his logo, but still couldn’t find one. Still a duplicate is a violation of trademark laws. After reading your article I am thinking of suggesting him to create a new logo which is based on his original logo with his business name included in it. I guess it rules out the possibility of duplication.

    Thanks for your article and lot of helpful comments

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