Makin' Copies

Tags: jay, design, studio, UX

We're in the design phase for a new national brand that uses chalkboard writing as the foundation of the packaging, and while there are a few decent options for chalk-based fonts, there's something anachronistic and tacky about licensing someone else's handwriting. So, our Designer Andi Woodward is making four of our own.

In a larger context, though, we fight for these opportunities to create assets from scratch, when we can, because the internet is basically a big copy machine. Every little design idea is eventually ganked and duplicated around the world. All graphic designers are plagiarists to some degree. Five years ago, somebody somewhere used Gotham tracked out in all caps - it looked elegant and timeless, yet cool and contemporary - and we all immediately started doing it too. If asked, we might say that it was 'on-trend' or something, but in reality we were just using a shortcut that we knew would look good. Like all tradespeople, we acquire these little shortcuts and load up our shelves with them. We do that because we don't have the luxury of waiting for the Muse to visit like fine artists do. Our clients have deadlines.

When I was a cartoonist, I had maybe 20 good shortcuts for drawing hands. It's hard to say how many of them were stolen, since curation trickily feels as creative as invention, but I would bet maybe 90% were based on other artists' work that I just loved and unconsciously mimicked: the stubby fingers of Rose O'Neil, the boxes and cylinders of John Buscema, etc.

The easiest way to know something works is to watch someone else do it first, then track the result. This is how Hollywood has been operating for a century: 1. Wait to see what works. 2. Copy. 3. Repeat.

'Patterns' are another word for these shortcuts. You hear it in UX circles a lot. "Here are some mobile patterns we should follow," means, "Here are someone else's ideas we should steal."

An explanation is that digital interfaces are complex, and patterns are behaviors that emerge from successful interactions. Which is true. But, design is actually much more complicated than UX, in the way that what makes poetry good is orders of magnitude more subtle and layered than what makes prose good (even if the stakes are far lower). Using tricks to solve for complexity isn't new nor more justified when talking about User Experience than it is for User Pleasure.

There's nothing wrong with using copied patterns, but somebody at some point has to be the first to try a new thing, or there will never be any shortcuts added to the shelf, and everything digital will eventually look like Facebook.

For a brand it can be even more serious - design is part of identity, and losing that or simply blending in with your competition means you're ceding the spotlight. When consumers eventually have only to choose same or similar options, you're vulnerable to a competitor who innovates. 

Fonts are the smallest vein on a leaf on the tree of a brand's design, but where we can, when we can, offering our clients something unique helps guard their singularity in a sea of duplication. And to be honest, our hand-drawn letters were all inspired by existing typefaces anyway, so who are we to be all bloggy about it? The End