Thesis Proposal

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<<< Piracy and Plagiarism in Relation to Graphic Design >>>

“We swim in a sea of culture, of memories about old and new, and all our acts flow out in response to what we experience. In the coming age of infinite recall, I think we will rediscover a preindustrial fact: origin is not a point but a continuum, and the process of originality is much more linked than we imagine.” (Saffo, 1994) [Online]


This paper introduces an initial proposal for a thesis study. The aim of it is, to examine ‘Piracy and Plagiarism in relation to Graphic Design’. This investigation will therefore consider relevant information; explore key arguments, design ideas, theories of the appropriate issues connected to plagiarism and authenticity with their similar and different sides. A brief analysis will be undertaken on synthesizing material from different sources and will commence a journey from the general subject ideas and concepts through to the research methodology. Furthermore it will consider key themes such as notions of parody, piracy, pastiche, appropriation and inspiration and where this differs from notions of plagiarism. There will be deliberation of wider related postmodern. It is also important to specify whether piracy and plagiarism in design constitute a growing problem or are simply an inspiring echo from the past.

The differences between what constitutes plagiarism as theft of one’s property or ideas and legitimate appropriation as a source of inspiration will also be considered. The theory of plagiarism in the creative arts is sophisticated and although one can endeavour to differentiate between what is ‘appropriate’ and ‘inappropriate’ moreover, there are many grey areas which require further clarification.


The methodology will mainly utilise secondary methods of investigation resources such as books and websites, for more factual and updated information.

The thesis methodology will include a diachronic review, it will begin with an investigation into the early existence of visual representation, and how Graphic Design, in reference to commercial development, has largely existed as a product of the ‘first world’. (Aynsley, 2001) There will be additional consideration of the late 1970s, when alternatives to orthodox modern practice marked the advent of the so-called postmodern era of Graphic Design. Further research is connected to how the modern canon was under fire from designers who questioned the old, and sought to establish new standards to break free from the structures of the grid. (Bierut, Drenttel and Heller, 1997) In their attempts to invent something new and unknown, designers started using more and more old ideas which could be viewed as the beginning of what is now known as ‘appropriation’. The research will discuss the positive and negative aspects connected to piracy and plagiarism in relation to graphic design. Also the application of design in the digital era will be considered. (Saffo, 1997)

The thesis will be divided into two parts: theoretical and analytical. In the first part it will present theories and concepts that are most relevant and valuable for the purpose of this research. There will also be exploration of selected postmodernist theories of intersexuality and meta and database-narrations by Jean Baudrillard. Also it will consider critical analysis methods, gathering and formulating supporting evidence of differences between what constitutes plagiarism and legitimate appropriation. Which can it take on many different forms such as pastiche, parody, homage, satirical parody, plagiarism, accidental plagiarism and coincidental plagiarism. Within these copy practices, it seems that there are many instances where it may become problematic to determine whether the designer‘s intent is to conceal the source material, or, in a way, where the idea of an original is put into question. In addition there will be an analysis of instances where there are unconscious copy processes or where similarities are simply happenstance in these cases, intent cannot even be factored into the equation. Moreover, it may be possible to ‘classify‘ visual plagiarism and provide terms and descriptions for various approaches in theory, it becomes significantly more difficult to ascertain intent in a practical sense and thus apply this theory in reality.


  • What is plagiarism and what relation does it have to Graphic Design?
  • What is appropriation?What is the difference between plagiarism and coincidence?
  • Inspiration vs. plagiarism: What is the difference?
  • How has Graphic Design practice been altered during the digital era?
  • What is the definition of copyright?
  • How has the Internet influenced and impact plagiarism?    


Secondary research, to date, has consisted of engaging with web-based information in addition to books concerning piracy and plagiarism in relation to Graphic Design. This includes Paul Saffo’s study ‘The Place of Originality in the Information Age‘ (1994). This essay discusses the effects of technology on a designer’s ability to create original works. While initially Saffo wrote about possible negative effects, in the end, he did feel that technology would further design as opposed to hinder it. In terms of postmodernism theory the book ‘Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism’ by Fredric Jameson (1991) will help to identify the key issues of modernism and postmodernism from a Marxist perspective. In this book Jameson brings to the subject an immense range of references, both in terms of artworks and theoretical discussions. A strong hypothesis linking cultural changes to changes in the place of culture will be explored in terms of the whole structure of life produced by a new phase of economic history (multinational capitalism). One of the most successful and helpful books is ‘Pioneers of Modern Graphic Design: A Complete History’ by Jaremy Aynsley (2001). It is a unique review of chronologically organized comprehensive reference work profiles all the most influential designers worldwide, from early leaders of the genre including Peter Behrens to exponents of today’s digital technology such as Jonathan Barnbrook.


The body of research constitutes defining and analysing the notions of plagiarism and piracy in the light of their diachronic development as well as clarifying the boundaries between various modes of use (homage, appropriation, quotation, or eclecticism) and the above mentioned phenomena. The notions of piracy and plagiarism as opposed to those of pastiche once considered, the latter seemingly implies a mere ‘borrowing’ of ideas from the past with further probability of being appropriated, thus imitating previous styles is encouraged. Therefore, there are many forms of plagiarism, being based on various factors (inexperience, using ideas accidentally or coincidentally, etc.). It is important to distinguish the boundaries between what is stolen and what is taken as exemplary work, since what is taken as exemplary cannot be seen as plagiarism, i.e. stealing the ideas of others, conceptually. In this research it is highlighted that the idea of taking inspiration from concepts that already exist is encouraged in Graphic Design, provided the references are clearly set and not plagiarised, though it is difficult to clarify the boundaries.

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Piracy and Plagiarism in Relation to Graphic Design

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<<< CONTENTS >>>

  •  Introduction  

1.    Graphic Design in its Diachrony

  • Diachronic Review                                                                                                                             
  • Design in the Digital Era
  • Description of Pastiche
  • Conclusion                                                                            

2.    Piracy and Plagiarism in Graphic Design  

  • Piracy. Notion of Copyright
  • Plagiarism / Definition of Plagiarism
  • Internet Influence and Digitalisation
  • Terms Relating to Appropriation and Plagiarism in Graphic Design
  • Extreme Graphic Design in Plagiarism
  • Inspiration vs. Plagiarism
  • Differentiation between Plagiarism and Coincidence
  • Conclusion 

3.    Bibliography

  • Books
  • Websites
  • PDF Documents

4.    Appendix

  • Images


In this essay the major themes to be explored refer to the interconnection between piracy and plagiarism in relation to the sphere of Graphic Design. Also the application of design in the digital era will be considered.  The influence of appropriation and its interrelated practices in relation to the progress of contemporary design and culture will also be investigated. The main aim of the paper is to explore where the boundary is between piracy and plagiarism in relation to Graphic Design with regard to its impact on cultural and ethical proceeding. It is also important to specify whether piracy and plagiarism in design constitute a growing problem or are they simply an inspiring echo from the past.

Visual configurations are a compound part of the human past. They have existed as long as there has been the demand. Various methods have subsequently been used to create designations or leave traces, to converse by means of signs and symbols rather than the spoken word. In the contemporary era the arrangement of layout signs and symbols, or words and images, for general public exchange is declared as ‘Graphic Design’. (Aynsley, 2001) A graphic designer aims to use conjunctions of media, strategies, skills and techniques to generate the ultimate outcome. Furthermore Graphic Design relates to the methodology employed to inform the communication process, resulting in the products and designs which are generated.

William Addison Dwiggins, an American typographer is assumed to be the first person to fully apply the term ‘Graphic Design’ in 1922 in order to distinguish various kinds of design for printing. (Aynsley, 2001) At the initial stage, the graphic arts were closely related to their technical basis in handicraft skills. Later the requirement to manage efforts and to consult the client on the superlative and most appropriate solutions, led to a division amid ‘plan and execution’. The graphic designer was the mediator – the one who gained guidelines from the consumer, planned and elaborated sketches and later instructed technicians and other related staff to implement  the design. (Aynsley, 2001)


The term ‘commercial graphics’ was related to a hierarchy in which the imitative arts presumably not linked with commercial activity and were higher than the apportioned arts, which were in the service trade. However, towards the end of the twentieth-century, these assumptions were difficult to maintain, because has become clear that arts are part of an economic approach. (Aynsley, 2001)

Graphic Design has largely existed as a product of the ‘first world’ and is intensely linked to an industrial and commercial foundation. The reason for such needs in Graphic Design has been the rapid development of the industry in relation to the world of technology. Another dimension for Graphic Design has been acting as a social critic which on occasions has turned its focus upon the dubious nature of certain commercial practices.

In the 1960s social and political unrest was manifest in the underground press and movements to promote alternative social structures. In a political reaction against capitalism, the work of Lohg Heartfield (well-known German designer of the Weimar era), utilised photomontage as a political tool in his fight against the Nazi regime which took on resumption value. Furthermore, arising from the radicalisation of the New Left, feminist design experience animated substitute approaches to Graphic Design. This included site-specific facilities established on public matters, such as the work of American designer Sheila Levrant de Bretteville. (Aynsley, 2001)

One of the most influential books of the post war period was Paul Rand’s, Thoughts on Design of 1947. Rand already enjoyed a prodigious career as a young graphic designer and art director, elevated the designer’s role to that of ‘artist’. After seeing the first examples of Bauhaus work in a 1928 issue of the British Commercial Art magazine, a young Paul Rand was one of the few who appreciated the theoretical underpinnings of this method and embraced modernism not as a novelty, but as a viable alternative to the saccharine, copy-heavy, overly stylised graphic art that was being produced in commercial ads, packages, and magazines at the time. Further he incorporated aspects of modern theory – cubism, neoclassicism and constructivism – into advertising and editorial work. (Bierut, Drenttel and Heller, 1997)

In the late 1970s, alternatives to orthodox modern practice marked the approach of the so-called postmodern era of Graphic Design. The modern canon was under fire from designers who questioned the old, and aims to set new standards in order to free themselves from the structure of the grid. In an attempt to invest something new and not known before the artists started using more and more old ideas which could be viewed as the beginning of what is now known as appropriation. The overestimation of modern type and design conventions particular taught in Wolfgang Weingart’s classes in Basel, Switzerland, was imported to America by his students and acolytes, including Dan Friedman and April Greiman, who designed in ways that were indeed foreign to modernist America. By the mid 1980s new wave was involved in the symbolic showcase, articles on veterans and perspective newcomers were no longer rigorous reasonably to address changes in design method and thoughts. (Bierut, Drenttel and Heller, 1997)

In the late twentieth century the idea was retained that “Graphic Design could improve a visual environment. This outlook, usually described as ‘late modern’ represented continuity with the founding aims of Graphic Design.” (Aynsley, 2001, p. 11) Postmodernists, by contrast, suggested that there had been a categorical redefinition, at this time a fundamental pause had appeared in modernism. They decided to celebrate pluralism of style and variety of public in reaction against what they perceived to be the over-reductive tendency of previous design. (Aynsley, 2001) By contrast with what modernist Graphic Design had proposed, it was no longer the designer’s role to try to control meaning or to solve the problem of communication. Instead typography could be a discursive practice, not concerned with the delivery of a certain message but inviting a multiplicity of readings. (Aynsley, 2001)

The truth is, according to Bierut et al that modernism was fraught with contradiction from the outset, but that is what gave it breadth. (Bierut, Drenttel and Heller, 1997) Modernism evolved from its original utopian guise of making the industrial world a better place to live in through its post-war functional role of making the industrial world clean and sanitized. The ideal of ‘the universal’, as proffered in the late 1940s by the Swiss, girded by rules and strictures, ultimately became inflexible. However despite its catechism, modernism did not begin as an all-encompassing ideology rooted in art and design, but rather as a confluence of progressive ideas that more or less attempted to reflect and mediate the radical changes in politics, society, technology, and economy that faced European industrial nations between the world wars. (Bierut, Drenttel and Heller, 1997)

“Taking stock at the beginning of the new century, it becoms clear that Graphic Design is a well-established avenue of wider design with its own set of intellectual debates, its own culture of journalism and criticism, and active response to the changing demands of the technology.” (Aynsley, 2001, p.11)


The rigid categories applied to type design in the past therefore do not necessarily make sense in the digital era. Through computerisation, the design process was largely dematerialised into electronic form and Graphic Design was radically altered. Working with computers allowed designers to do away with manual processes that employed physical materials of the craft. At the same time computers increased the scope of work and the speed at which it could be produced.

‘Design’ became a key word in the late twentieth century, and this was used ‘as a prefix for a wide range of goods and cultural activities’. Graphic Design privileged from this improvement exposure.  As multinational companies developed global identities, consumers were made aware of the power of branding through the manifestation of graphic advertising. Designers such as Tibor Kalman and groups such as Adbusters took up questions formulated by critical cultural writers, in order to expose corporate strategies of persuasion and media control. Other designers such as Zuzana Licko and Rudy VanderLans expressed their reluctance to become handmaidens of global corporations. (Aynsley, 2001)

“This digital shift to infinite recall will upset the apple cart of originality forever.” (Saffo, 1997, p. 96) What seems like luck, inspiration, and risky happenstance at the moment of creation could take on the aspect of plagiarism and fraud when viewed in perfect unblinking twenty-twenty digital hindsight. “Now, in an age of digital storage, duplication is so facile and storage so cheap that the notion of a single original will all but disappear.” (Saffo, 1997, p. 96) The mechanical age, with its profligate replication and reproduction, turned origin into a point, leaving society with an obsessive illusion of individual creativity. Histories became a pattern of multiple points of originality with patterns of copying and duplication fanning out from them. (Saffo, 1997)


During the history of postmodern Graphic Design, designers have reprised elements from the past, as ‘pastiche’. The Oxford English Dictionary defines pastiche as a “medley of various ingredients – a hotchpotch, farrago, jumble.” (, 2012) [Online] Pastiche openly impersonates the prior works of other artists, often with sarcastic purpose and as a hotchpotch of preposterous parts. (Aynsley, 2001) “All brands need to appear new yet familiar” (Heller and Fili, 2006, p. 237) and pastiche design reconciles this paradox by giving new brands instant inheritance and old brands a chance to flag their provenance and genuineness. “Rather than rob tombs to create indulgent novelties these designers are sincerely influenced by various historical forms, which are integrated into their respective style.” (Heller and Fili, 2006, p. 238)

Postmodern Graphic Design corresponds to art itself, it is gathered upon layers of the past, sometimes a compound of, or even a response for or against previous methods and styles. Apparently contemporary design has no particular opinion and form to inspire a visual movement. It is a stylistic vacuum where pastiche tends to be often used and abused. (Aynsley, 2001)

However, the awareness ‘pastiche’ gave to the famous American literary critic Fredric Jameson is valuable and interesting in providing an academic context for this fact, which throughout the 1980s was very relevant and undermined previously defined concepts of ‘originality’ and ‘newness’ (and still is relevant today). (Jameson, 1991) Jameson describes pastiche and parody as the ‘imitation and the mimicry of styles and approaches’. (Economou, 2011) [Online] In contrast to previous modernist approaches that advanced and persued the ideals of universality, postmodernism in many ways celebrated  plurality and heterogeneity, resulting in diverse pluralistic approaches in Graphic Design practice that defied convention and rules. (Economou, 2011) [Online] Unlike, modernism, where a shared multipurpose ideal had been pursued in post-modernism art and design ‘voices’ could take in a discussion, sometimes ‘agreeing’  and other times poking fun or commenting negatively. Jameson considers this style of mimicry as parody. (Jameson, 1991)

“Parody seems easy – just copy something famous and give it a twist – but is one of the most difficult methods to achieve successfully.” (Heller and Vienne, 2012, p.134) The common understanding of ‘parody’, – is that somewhere behind all parody is the feeling that there is an artistic norm in which the styles of the major modernists can be mocked. (Jameson, n.d.) [Online] Parody is implied to modify the initial work giving it a new value and frequently represents actuality by indicating to certain of its singularities. The concept of parody is therefore an inseparable constituent of mass culture. In a postmodernist area, parody is being succeeded by pastiche. As postmodernism’s pluralism displaces the very idea of modern universality it becomes increasingly difficult to share a norm against which a parody can register its comic effect. (Poynor, 2003) In a way that parody multiplies, yet still connects creative approaches with each other, pastiche multiplies and disconnects.

As a result, pastiche exists as a contemporary cultural feature that reproduces and mimics without reference to any specific ‘original’ – thus as – blank parody. (Jameson, n.d.) [Online] The researcher Mirella Billi presumes that parody may be differed from pastiche whereas it brings out the diversity between the two texts rather than similarity. Whereas parody is transformative, pastiche is imitative for a reason. (Dyer, 2006) The modernist conception and quest for originality is deeply affected and writers and artists of the present day will no longer be able to invent new styles and worlds they have already been invented; only a limited number of combinations are possible, the most unique ones have been thought of already. (Jameson, n.d.) [Online]    

Hereby, in a worldwide in which stylistic novelty is no longer existing, according to Fredric Jameson, all that is left is to simulate dead styles – “to speak through the masks and with the voices of the styles in the imaginary museum.” (Jameson, n.d.) [Online] “Appropriation, pastiche, quotation – these methods can now be seen to extend to virtually every aspect of our culture, from the most calculated products of the fashion and entertainment industries to the most committed critical activities of artists …” Douglas (1985) (, 2009) [Online].

Designers discussing plagiarism usually distinguish it from homage, appropriation, quotation, or eclecticism. There are no clear boundaries between these modes of use and plagiarism. Judgments are often made not on the basis of the work, but on the basis of the respect one has for the author of the ‘copy’. (Swanson, 2003) Postmodernism refers to Western theoretical and creative approaches that dominated during the 1980s, the attitudinal implications of which are still particularly relevant in contemporary design theory and practice. Features of postmodernism include, pluralism and complexity, ‘pastiche’, inclusivity rather than exclusivity, a blurring of boundaries between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture, embracing of appropriation practices, resistance to universalising systems and authoritative standards and the challenging of convention and rules. (Poynor, 2003) At the heat of postmodernism in Graphic Design a movement of ‘retro design’ and ‘appropriation’ approaches featured strongly, earning this time period the title ‘the age of plunder’. Savage (1983) (Poynor 2003) Appropriation in the Graphic Design or visual arts concerns approximate artistic practices where plagiarised or appropriated sections are used in the creation of a different work. (Economou, 2011) [Online] The critic Frederic Jameson expressed his opinion suggesting that in the contemporary world in which ‘all the new are no more than well forgotten old’, stylistic innovation is no longer possible. What is left for the artist is therefore to imitate dead styles, to converse through the masks and reiterate what has been invented and show spectators. This specifies that existing or postmodern art predictably becomes accessible art itself in a new kind of way. It means that one of its significant characteristics will hold the essential failure of art, the waiver of the new, the deprivation of liberty in the past. (Poynor, 2003)

Issues of ethics and originality of appropriation therefore become contentious, where proponents of appropriation art and design, see it as a legitimate creative and expressive practice, while cynics question it for its lack of ‘originality’ and ‘ethics’. (Sahiner, 2007) [Online] The very term ‘appropriation’ has both positive and negative connotations. From one perspective, appropriation is a process of application of the elements of well-recognised works or ideas, for the development of something new and more original. On the other side, appropriation is often associated with ‘theft of privacy’. (McClean and Schubertp, 2002)

The artist Salvador Daii and his work Lobster Telephone created in 1936, represents appropriation as used in art prior to development of postmodernist ideas and their embodiment in art and culture. Later in the 1950s, appropriated images and objects appeared extensively in the works of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, and eventually emerged into the new attitude of Pop Art. American artists Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg together with British artist Richard Hamilton founded the Pop Art movement which aimed to use popular mass styles, advertising ideas and mass media as cultural icons to be explored through fine art contexts. Pop Art exerted its influence on all the major spheres of cultural life. (, n.d.) [Online] A concept parallel to appropriation is the issue of plagiarism, which has been widely discussed in relation to cultural output and wider society. With the explosion of pastiche in postmodern design, plagiarism has become a relevant and more prominent issue.

As the instance of plagiarism could be related to the upcoming Winter Olympic games, which are due to take place in Sochi, Russia in 2014. The Olympic Bear is the main mascot of these games. The matter of plagiarism has in turn arisen in relation to this mascot, nevertheless this is a two-sided dispute. From one point of view, the use of a famed mascot, which was chosen through the selection, process in Moscow. However this closely resembles the mascot from the Summer Olympic games held in 1980. It is possible thus, that author the had attempted to evoke nostalgia for the past games and celebrations which were in the same country. From another point of view, this can be considered no more than the plagiarised idea of what is already known by generations of people. Victor Chizhikov, the children’s books illustrator and designer of the original 1980 Olympic Bear asserts that, the new character is no more than the copy of his preceding work. (Smirnov, 2011) [Online] (Fig. 1)

Today, the Web, is a vast repository of digital information, alive with infinite possibilities of access, storage, reproduction and alteration, reflected in Jameson‘s concept of ‘pastiche’. The Web effectively becomes a digital ‘museum’, an easily accessible resource for designers to draw from in the absence of notions of ‘originality’. The difference perhaps from then to now, is that the focus of appropriation is not so much in a historical sense, as even the boundaries between old and new are starting to dissolve and contemporary visual ‘styles’ are being extensively re-contextualised and here again ‘origin’ becomes a non-issue. Justification to this, accent of infinite memory as an significant feature of the information age is considered and explains how it influence ideas of creativity and originality in design – “memory gives us context while forgetfulness provides an opening for invention and originality.” (Saffo, 1997)

With infinite recollection of all the visual solutions produced, the conventional cycle of stylistic evolution is obstructed and it becomes increasingly difficult to generate anything ‘new’ or different in design. In the absence of digital infinite recall, graphic designers have the ability to draw from imprecise memories and reconstitute and ‘invent’ different visual solutions to what is already evident and ‘known’, in contrast to contemporary digital practices of replication and sampling. In the multiplicitous digital space of the Web, the maze-like connections between ‘original’ and infinite ‘perfect’ digital replications and permutations, this illustrates how easy it is  to see that the notion of originality can be undermined. Jameson’s concept of pastiche and Saffo‘s infinite recall raises questions regarding the viability of originality as a concept.

Although, the question may not always be academic or theoretical in nature, in the everyday regenerative pluralistic environment of infinite digital remembering, ‘creativity’ may be conceived of as merely an act of assembling and reassembling what has gone before in ‘new’ ways, rather  than intending to be ‘original’. (Economou, 2011) [Online]


The term ‘Copyright’ has been a subject of debate and deeply disputed issue within the art community over a long time. It concerns what artists, designers, gallery owners and museum staff confront every day. (McClean and Schubert, 2002)

In the contemporary Internet era, grasp of subjects such as copyright has become a more complicated issue that affects designers. “For graphic and web designers, understanding how copyright works is something that they do not really care about”, since one could say that in this niche there is still a lot of confidence in people’s good manners. (Sarmiento, 2011) [Online] However, very often guided by such frivolity they fall into traps such as ‘plagiarism’.

For example, throughout the 1990s there were an exuberance of copyright challenges involving major contemporary artists. In highly publicised cases, Damien Hirst, Barbara Kruger, Elizabeth Peyton, Glenn Brown, Cai Guo Qiang and the Andry Warhol Estate, have all faced legal action from commercial artists, photographers and designers for copyright encroachment of their work. (McClean and Schubert, 2002) Some of the controversial cases have been resolved out of court and others in the procedure of lawsuits, but such division not only cost artists heavy damages and legal fees, they take up much time and therefore potentially stifle creativity.

“Critics of copyright law argue that it is in the nature of art to copy, quote and gather from all visual sources, including art itself and popular culture.” (McClean and Schubert, 2002) They  likewise indicate that the law is dangerously out of step with the ‘post-modern’ practices of contemporary artists who use and re-contextualise the readymade imagery and materials of our culture, thereby calling into question the values of originality and authorship upon which both modernist aesthetics and copyright law are seemingly built. (McClean and Schubert, 2002)


The Encyclopaedic World Dictionary (1971) defines the act of plagiarism as – “the appropriation or imitation of another’s ideas and manner of expressing them, as in art, literature, etc., to be passed off as one’s own.”

In principle, plagiarism is  about copying something and not giving appropriate credit to the source. According to Graphic Design experience, visual plagiarism relates to the unapproved consumption or imitation of subsisting artwork and the “representation of it as one‘s own original work.” (MacAvery, 2012) [Online]

The Guardian newspaper quotes Dr Margo Blythman, academic director of teaching and learning at the University of the Arts London: “I’m not sure it will be possible to come up with a definitive set of guidelines,” she state, “but at least people will be forced to discuss plagiarism. At present, nobody in the arts really seems to want to even think about it.” (Crace, 2007) [Online] Following the above mentioned statement, it is possible to assume that plagiarism is an inseparable constituent of modern art in all its varieties and dimensions. If this fact was given much publicity, it could create extensive debates and arguments among distinguished artists as well as beginners. On the contrary, knowing the fragile and highly spiritual nature of the modern artists it becomes evident that artists even if accused of plagiarising one’s ideas would justify themselves stating that they use one’s ideas for inspiration or self-support.

Following empirical records, it is possible to state that without any accessible and understandable guidelines for the visual arts, designers rely on basic policy documents, which  in various cases use classifications. These similar types of policy definitions may incorporate visual plagiarism. Doing so, they do not provide any opportunities for formative learning such as those in which designers are to deal with a particular issue or problem. However, visual plagiarism is a intricate and, in a sense, dubious concept for graphic designers, as theoretical postmodern representations of appropriation and pastiche, in addition the effects of mass digitalisation of the information age destroy conventional notions of what constitutes visual plagiarism and affect designers capacity to work within visual plagiarism policies. (Economou, 2011) [Online]


The Internet has built a strong cultural belief that materials can lawfully be copied and distributed. (Economou, 2011) [Online] The reason for particular social beliefs and thought can be that – if specific data (images, music, films, e.t.) have fast and free access, ‘so why not to take it’. Copying is illegitimately and much more than just copyright contravention of software.(Economou, 2011) [Online]

This culpability manifests in a variety of ways, including, technical and cultural implications of digitalisation and replication, such as changing perceptions of authorship and originality and the notion of ‘copy culture’. (Fitzpatrick, 2011) [Online] The ever-increasing profusion of digitalised information characterises the contemporary information age. Graphic Design itself has been revolutionised by digitalisation, as designs are now produced on computer in contrast to previous mechanical systems and manual methods. Today more than ever before, Graphic Design visuals are available on the Web in various guises as part of portfolio showcases, historical and reference repositories, as well as commercial and/or free stock libraries, amongst others. Search engines, such as Google, support image searches and can present graphic designers with a vast array of designs or visual elements, including vector graphics, photographs or illustrations that can be used as inspiration, examples or components within designs. It is common practice for designers to surround themselves with ‘inspiration’ and graphic examples that they can draw from as part of the design process. With digitalisation, boundaries are dissolving as the tools for the production and consumption of Graphic Design are brought together onto the computer screen. The problem for designers occurs when the source of inspiration becomes the final design, or is too similar to the final design, and is then submitted for assessment. Other problems implicating plagiarism occur when designs contain  elements that have not been appropriately attributed.

Today the technical facilities inherent in the Internet and digitalisation encourage a culture of copying. Digitalisation facilitates easy access to information via vast storage capacities online and locally and the easy replication of even large amounts of information with effortless copy and paste functionality. Copying is pervasive online, in subtle ways like the cashing of Websites and more obvious ways, such as the use of the ‘mirror sites’. (Economou, 2011) [Online] This is further evident in the replicating of information that takes place in reposting information on blogs, the use of mailing lists and built-in functionality in a growing number of websites that allow one to link/replicate information to utilities such as social media sites and re-post information with the click of a button.

In addition, ever more, information is being saved or downloaded from the Web, even where the usual saving processes are not permitted, there are numerous ‘download‘ utilities available that can circumvent security systems that have been embedded precisely to protect copyright. Taking this further, (Economou, 2011) [Online] points to a misconception, amongst significantly the younger generation, that everything on the Internet is ‘free’. The fact that a significant amount of ‘free’ information – including freeware or shareware utilities,books, documents, images, graphics, fonts, music and movies certainly adds to this impression. The free nature of some information, in conjunction with the seeming abundance that infinite digital copying offers, can colour the assumption of users that all information, as long as it can be accessed and saved electronically, regardless of copyright protection or ownership, is also ‘free’. In addition to this, the Internet was built and developed in a community of information sharing and the original framework of the Internet may be characterised as cooperative and non-proprietary. (Economou, 2011) [Online] There still exists a strong influence of openness, sharing and community evident in Webmodels such as wikis and open source software development. Here the sharing, building and transforming of information are seen as ways of enabling greater creativity and innovation in a communal way. However, in an academic scenario the approach is different, as students are often assessed as individuals and are required to recognise authorship and attribution in a conventional and systematic way. Graphic Design students assimilate and replicate digital information almost unconsciously on a daily basis as they ‘play’ browsing and saving images and Web pages for visual inspiration, while engaging with social media sites such as Facebook and simultaneously ‘work’ developing Graphic Design for academic assignments. The computer as an Internet connected entity blurs many boundaries and therefore certain students find it more challenging to distinguish between the different requirements of academic work and the enticing practices of being online. (Allen 2003)

In an age of information overload, permeated with infinite digital copies, the concept of ‘original’ becomes perhaps difficult to identify and as the idea of authorship and originality is dissolving, a new generation of designers are emerging who do not necessarily recognise plagiarism in a conventional way. (Economou, 2011) Copy culture, sampling and remaking are creative cultural practices and concepts that have emerged as responses to digital replication (multiplication) and assimilation processes, they attest to the significant cultural shifts that digital technology and the Internet offers. These terms refer to a variety of related creative practices of copying and combining pre-existing samples of music/sound, video and art, which challenge the boundaries of copyright law and concepts of originality and authorship. Here conventional boundaries blur and a reciprocal influence emerges between consumer and producer, and, copy and ‘original’. ‘Amateur’ consumers become creative ‘producers’ as they assimilate samples of commercially produced sound, images and video and reconstitute them as creative multimedia assemblages using digital home computers and equipment. These remaking practices lead to theoretical debates regarding artistic and creative integrity as well as copyright and ownership implications.


Appropriation featured in many well-known and professional designers work, particularly during the 1980s and as a result much debate has ensued regarding whether these approaches constitute plagiarism or legitimate creative practice. However, one of the most common precedents is a Swatch Watch poster (1986) designed by Paula Scher that appropriated a Swiss travel poster (1934) by Herbert Matter. (Fig. 2)

Although there are differences in the two posters, there are too many similarities for it to be coincidental. This example has been used in many discussions regarding plagiarism, however Scher did have permission from Matter‘s widow to use the image. (Scher, 2002) Scher‘s design had an explicit link with the original, she suggest that she admired Matters work and had his Swiss travel posters hanging on the walls of the office, and she terms the work as a parody campaign (Scher, 2002).

However, with this example in mind, parody can be described as mimicking or borrowing closely from a source where the link to the source is overt and the intent is to reveal the source. Following Poynor (2003), parody can reveal the source either in comical and disparaging way or be sincere and respectful. Accordingly, two categories of parody can be distinguished, namely satire and homage. In light of this, Scher’s design for Swatch can be considered as a form of homage. Contrastingly, an example of satirical parody can be found in the imitation of South African Breweries (SAB) Carling Black Label beer brand by Justin Nurse from Laugh It Off. (Fig. 3)

Laugh It Off, mimics the Black Label logo mark and places it on a T-shirt design, however the text ‘Black Label’ is replaced by ‘Black Labour’ and ‘Carling Beer’ by ‘White Guilt’ as a way of commenting on contemporary cultural issues in South Africa. Interestingly, SAB sued Laugh It Off – on the basis of trademark dilution by tarnishment but lost the case (Rengecas, 2005). The design relies on the link to be made back to the original to have its desired effect and intent to mock be patent, accordingly this can be considered as satirical parody.

An example of pastiche can be found in the cover design by designer Barney Bubbles (Colin, Fulcher) for the album ‘Armed Forces’ by Elvis Costello and the Attractions. (Fig. 4) The design, comprising of multiple flaps that can be reconfigured by the viewer in various ways, is described as a riotous melange of art historical allusions to Mondrian, Abstract Expressionism, Op Art and Pop, fronted by a painting of a herd of elephants in a kitsch popular style. (Poynor, 2003) This designer‘s work does not rely on the viewer recognising the sources it was appropriated from for it to have its desired effect. Neither does the designer set out to conceal the link by reconfiguring or transforming the source material into something completely ‘new’ and ‘original’ necessarily.

The design functions as the sum of its parts. Accordingly, the design is an example of pastiche it does not rely on a connection with the source material for the viewer to appreciate it and essentially there is no intention to comment negatively or positively on the source material that is mimicked or copied. This category is contentious due to the fact that intent to comment on the source does not assert itself in a clear way and the link to the source material is ‘broken’ which can be interpreted as intent to conceal the link (cheat). The creative integrity of this approach then often relies on how similar the final design is to its source and the integrity and professional standing of the designer. (Swanson, 2003)

The term plagiarism can be distinguished from the terms that have been discussed so far, in that plagiarism‘s intention is to conceal its source material. This is in contrast to pastiche, where there is no intent evident, neither to conceal or to reveal, and to parody, where there is a definite intent to reveal the source material. (Economou, 2011) Designers who plagiarise deliberately set out to copy other solutions and ideas as a shortcut approach, hoping that no one will ever know that the idea or visual was not theirs. An important further differentiation can be made where plagiarism occurs as a result of inexperience. In the case of an inexperienced student designer the source may be inadvertently concealed in the final product, but may be evident in the process work. Designers use source material as inspiration and it is possible for a ‘new’ designer who is not yet capable of engaging with the creative design process adequately, not able to necessarily use the conceptual and theoretical issues of appropriation successfully, and therefore inappropriately copy the source material closely in the final solution. Although this type of plagiarism cannot be condoned, it should perhaps be dealt with in a pre-emptive or remedial rather than punitive manner. Finally, still under the banner of plagiarism, ‘accident’ and ‘coincidence’ can be differentiated. (Economou, 2011)

Accidental plagiarism (or cryptoamnesia) occurs as a hidden, unacknowledged memory that emerges as inspiration without any conscious knowledge of the original. Bierut (2006) in an Internet article entitled ‘I Am a Plagiarist’ describes this experience: “Did I think of it consciously when I designed my poster?… I saw something, stored it in my memory, forgot where it came from, and pulled it out later, much later, when I needed it. Unlike some plagiarists, I didn’t make changes to cover my tracks.”

Here Bierut clearly acknowledges his intent as not to conceal the source, as he had no conscious knowledge of it. Similarly, coincidental plagiarism can occur when a design piece seems as if it was plagiarised due to the fact that it is very similar to another work. It is possible that different people can come up with similar design solutions and in true postmodern fashion it can be asserted that nothing is new. Blythman Crace, (2007) comments: “There’s little, if anything, that can be genuinely said to be new and any time I do something original, I understand I just haven’t found the person who did it first.” Accidental and coincidental plagiarism becomes highly problematic, as these are ‘easy’ defenses for any accused plagiarist and very difficult to prove or disprove, as mentioned earlier.


When talking about copying, ripping off someone else is hard work, and using it as one’s own, it is worthwhile saying that any one person is hardly qualified enough to explore a single idea to the fullest. According to Chris Burns’s, Internet article, the sharing and free distribution of ideas is rational, and the idea that once an idea is freed into the world, it is free. For the betterment of the idea the following set of images, (Fig. 5), (Fig. 6), (Fig. 7), (Fig. 8), (Fig. 9), (Fig. 10), (Fig. 11) were found and set up by designer, artist, Internet person, retired design and professor Bob Caruthers.

The pairs of images in this set are similar in one way or another. Some are more similar than others and some are just similar without being influenced by the other. They are presented for no other reason than to shed some light on the creative process. (Burns, 2010) [Online]


The relevan example here concerns Newton sitting beneath an apple tree. An apple falling on his head apparnitly gave him motivation to think why this happened. Consequently, Newton discovered gravity. In this scenario, the fallen apple was the source of inspiration since it caused the interest and motivation in Newton. The notion of gravity is the inspiration.

‘Rip-off or inspiration’, this is one of the most controversial questions in Graphic Design. In despite of the amount of ads, logos and campaigns that are released daily, it is difficult not to be influenced by some designs during the working process, and the problem arises when the designer takes inspiration too far. There is nothing wrong in looking at references before starting a new design, because doing that actually provides a panorama of how other designers have approached that specific subject. The problem arises when designers grab such references and blatantly recycle them.

However, one of the most challenging things to do is gain inspiration sans copying or stealing someone else’s ideas. Being delimited by designs and art in domestic lives, attempting to detect a fine line between inspiration and theft, proves to be difficult at times. (Ogbonna, 2012) [Online] In particular when one takes into account that many designs are substantially influenced by the initially created works of art. In the contemporary context with so many resources so readily available, finding inspiration for a design is comparatively easy. The difficult part is taking the idea and making something new of it. It is there necessary to learn to merge various concepts, approaches and design features together. (Ogbonna, 2012) [Online]

Recently there has been an outdoor advertisement for the upcoming Touchstone Pictures, ‘Surrogates’ released. The tear sheet for the film, a science fiction thriller starring Bruce Willis, depicts a woman partially disrobing and revealing that she is not human. Thematically, it fits the storyline of a society that has created the perfect ‘human’ to only lose control of the creation. However, when looking at the poster, there was a personal sense of déjà vu, having recalled the tear sheets for the Fox Television serial, ‘Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles’ which used a very similar image to promote their 2008 season. The Terminator poster, depicting the lead ‘artificial’ character’s head and torso hanging from wires with her innards falling to the ground, is eerily akin to the ‘Surrogates’ campaign. (Johnston, 2009) [Online] The real possibilities of creating something nobody has ever seen are very slim. The inspiration can come from books, magazines, television or just walking around neighborhood. Also most of people have 24-hour access to endless visual inspiration, especially within the countless online design galleries that seem to manifest themselves on a daily basis. So, is it natural that people will turn to one of these outlets to gain little stimulation. Conversely could it be argued that there is an inherent danger to the artist, designer’s own organic creativity when they do this. Subconsciously, all copy to some degree when use other designers’ work as inspiration. (Economou, 2011) [Online]

The two posters mentioned above are very similar in theme, thus, this is potentially a classic example of designer plagiarism. So many elements of the ‘Terminator’ poster appeared from the ‘Surrogates’ example. (Fig. 12) As a designer, is it their responsibility to police themselves to avoid committing this type of plagiarism. Is it perfectly fine to be inspired by the multitude of great artists around. However, one cannot necessarily take the easy way out and simply copy other artist’s work. As artists in their own right, designers must constantly strive to find their ‘voice’ and carve out their small place in the designer universe. They would not be able to do that if simply plagiarise what came before them (Wilson, 2010) [Online].


As part of a constant consideration, some deductions can be made – lectures on apparent plagiarism and appropriation theory might be significant to provide contemporary society with a range of material to contextualize their personal experiences. Visual referencing structures could be implemented in studio practice in order to provide approaches for students (society) to specify source material in practice work and definitive suggestions. In terms of estimate practices, process work should be accentuated as a way of highlighting the student designer‘s responsibility in improving visual solutions. The notion of plagiarism in the originative arts is multifaceted and albeit one can attempt to distinguish, what is ‘appropriate‘ and ‘inappropriate‘, nevertheless there are and always will be many grey areas and much to debate.

It is indisputable that in the digital information age, the concept and technical improvements of regeneration has deep roots, together with postmodernist theoretical thoughts of appropriation. This has considerably changed creative and cultural perceptions and approaches with regards to what composes legitimate and illegitimate copying of evidence, incorporating visual information.

Inspiration and source material are definitely part of the design method and thoughts which come from various sources: they recur, regenerate, take new forms, and transform into alternative forms. (Drenttel, 2005) [Online]


Summing up the results of the above investigation of plagiarism and its related issues, it is possible to suggest that plagiarism is and will continue to be quite a disputable phenomenon. Its further existence in art and design is likely to be undeniable. In some cases, the problem of the original versus plagiarised might be decided in the court. In other cases, it may be a matter of severe debate between creatives and critics. An other perspective for plagiarism is its peaceful existence in various future forms of art and design. Having analysed different cases of appropriation, plagiarism and their variations it becomes evident that there is no clear boundary between authenticity and plagiarism which evokes even more questions for futher artistic and academic debates.



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Bierut, M., Drenttel, W., Heller, S. & DK Holland., 1997. Looking Closer 2, New York, Allworth Press.

Dyer, R., 2006. Pastiche, London, Routledge.

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Heller, S., 1999. Design Literacy (Continued) Understanding Graphic Design. New York, Allworth Press.

Heller, S. & Vienne, V., 2012. 100 Ideas that Changed Graphic Design, London, Laurence King Publishing Ltd.

Jameson, F., 1991. Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Durham, Duke University Press.

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McClean, D. & Schubert, K., 2002. Dear Images Art, Copyright and Culture, London, Arts Council of England National Visual Arts Publishing Grant.

Poynor, R., 2003. No more rules: Graphic Design and Postmodernism, London, Laurence King Publishing.

Saffo, P., 1997. The Place of Originality in the Information Age. In: Heller, S., & Finamore, M. Design Culture: An Anthology of Writing from the AIGA Journal of Graphic Design. New York, Allworth Press, pp. 189-192.

Scher, P., 2002. Make It Bigger, New York, Princeton Architectural Press.

Swanson, G., 2003. What‘s wrong with Plagiarism? In: Heller, S & Vienne, V. Citizen Designer: Perspectives on Design Responsibility. New York, Allworth Press, pp. 147- 158.


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