Plagiarism: Borrowing, copying, is it acceptable?

06 July 2016 | by Peter Stevens

Plagiarism: Borrowing, copying, is it acceptable?

Google Images search result for the term 'design plagiarism' reveals a huge number of examples

With the end of another college year, and to coincide with the launch of the new Car Design Awards 2016 student contest, Car Design News is addressing the issue of plagiarism in design; what it is, why people do it, explore the consequences of it right around the world, and at different stages of the design profession. This first story, by Peter Stevens, offers a broader introduction to the subject.

The search for new design ideas for Monday; a very close deadline for submitting an entry for a competition; next week's need for a portfolio for applying to a design college: these are just the kind of stressful situations where panic can set in.

Coming up with fresh concepts is never an easy task. Even for experienced designers the pressures of time can make it even harder to produce original work. This is where developing a design process or method is essential, particularly for young designers who tend to reach for pencil and paper or Wacom tablet before deciding on a design strategy.

There is nothing more scary or inhibiting than a blank sheet of paper, and this is something that can quickly lead to a blank mind, too. This is absolutely not the time to head to Google Images to see what other designers have done when faced with a similar task.

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Google Images is a fantastic resource, but must be used carefully

First, it is important to remember that anything that a designer sees is already out of date; it may have been on the web for a week, a month, a year or even more so it is no longer fresh. But the most important thing to remember is that it is someone else’s work.

As a spectator or viewer, those sketches are there for you to examine and maybe to be inspired by. The way another designer uses colour or depicts highlights or reflections gets the designer thinking that maybe his technique is becoming a little stale. For this, the internet is a great tool for encouraging you to improve your own drawing skills.

That, however, is very, very different from taking someone else’s work and presenting it as your own. Put simply, that is theft. It seems reasonable to download sketches that you like as examples of what a designer might aspire to, but these must be for reference only.

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2015 Lincoln Continental concept

The problem here is that we all see so much that is clearly copied from other company’s products; the radii on the corners and the basic ‘portrait’ proportions of almost any mobile phone are derived from Dieter Rams’ calculators that he designed for Braun in 1978. The recent Lincoln Continental concept was publicly criticised for being remarkably similar to the Bentley Flying Spur, but it is out there presented as a Lincoln and no one has lost their job.

So why is it so unacceptable to copy other designers' sketches? One, because it is morally wrong, and two, because it is incredibly stupid when a young designer is either looking to work in, or is already working in, a profession that employs people on the basis of their creativity, to demonstrate your lack of originality by copying other designers ideas.

Caught in the act

It is very easy to spot when someone has cut and pasted someone else’s work; either there is a great deal of inconsistency in the drawing and design style or such varying levels of skill seen by those looking at a portfolio, that they become suspicious. There is also the strong possibility that, as has happened in both examining and interview boards I have worked with, someone recognises a sketch from the internet.

Sometimes, very generously, the student is given the opportunity to explain that the plagiarised sketch is a standard they aspire to, but in every case the guilty student has insisted that the work is theirs. At every European and American university, plagiarism, when detected, is quickly followed by the student being told to leave the college immediately; no debate and no degree for those found guilty.

It has been very easy for universities to check the originality of written work for a number of years now that scripts are presented online by email. There are simple programmes that all universities have for quickly doing checks and now, by using Google Images, sketches and drawings can be similarly examined.

Putting Google to the test

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Original Google search result

I recently made a basic test of how sophisticated Google’s algorithms are by downloading an image of a design sketch for the Audi TT. I typed into Google Images a request for ‘car styling sketches’ and found a nice red front three-quarter sketch and downloaded that sketch.

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Original Audi TT sketch

I dragged and dropped the same sketch back into Google Images and was given the source of the sketch instantly.

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Sketch with first set of alterations

I then went through a number of changes to the sketch; changing the colour to blue, then to grey, changing the wheel design and then and then the grille design still produced the same result when dropped back into Google.

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Sketch with further changes

Further changes to the headlight and colour still came back as ‘Audi TT sketch’.

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Final Google Images search result

In other words not only is copying other designer work totally dishonest, it is very easily discovered. And it’s not necessary; what designers need to do, and what design colleges need to teach is a method for planning a design programme for oneself and then developing a simple method for coming up with new ideas, a method that you can then apply to any future project. It does not matter if it is looking at animals, great architecture, cloud formations, stones on the beach or aircraft to search for inspiration, just so long as it does not lead to ripping off the work of others.