I’m guilty of quickly clicking when someone calls design theft. It’s the closest thing to soap-opera-esque drama that an industry full of type and color obsessed kern-wads will ever get to. When we see the fight, we come running like it’s a schoolyard brawl where we’re all secretly hoping for things to get really crazy.
But much of the time these brawls have little substance. If no one has ever told you this, learn it now: YOU CAN’T OWN STYLE. Your job is not to develop a signature style. Your job is to match appropriate solutions to problems.
The decision to apply a specific style to address a specific problem is unique and ownable. Downloading free fonts from (the amazing) Lost Type Coop for a retro rebrand is a lot of fun, and you may be able to make some money in the process, but you don’t own the style. You own the decision that you made when you said “hey, this hardware store brand would look great in a post-war era retro style." And you weren’t the first to fit those pieces of the puzzle together (and from the look of things, you won’t be the last).
The more we try to mark off a little territory, to claim a little bit of the creative process as our own, the more we limit others — especially those young ones who are newly exploring all kinds of wild territory. Encourage creation, share freely, and add enough value in your process that you don’t have to piss all over some tiny little spot in a world of possibilities just so you can claim it as your own.
Design is slowly developing a community of open source minded folks who freely share those useful but non distinct little bits. To be comfortable passing along your files, sharing your secret layer styles, and revealing how the sausage is made takes confidence that you add value at a higher level than the execution layer of a project. Execution is technical, it can be learned, shared, and repeated. The product level decision coming into that execution are where the real value lies.
You can’t own style. Style is commodity. Own an intelligent process for making decisions and you’ll have a defensible and competitive advantage.
* I wrote this a month ago but thought it was timely in light of the Layervault thing. Layervault has been beautifully executed, but Kelly and Allan are also brilliant product guys and that is where they are creating real value. Hopefully this fight doesn’t distract them too much from continuing to create something really valuable.
** Sadly, real design theft does happen, and community support in those cases is awesome to see: Aesthetic Apparatus, Varsity Donuts, The Fox is Black.