Ask a Madman: My Client Wants Me to Copy a Design

My client wants me to make their website look just like an established brand’s site. Are they trying to throw me under the bus? Isn’t this against design ethics? What should I do?

beware thieves sign, intellectual property, web design inspiration

Whether it happens in a corporate conference room or in a startup client’s office (read: Starbucks), at some point in your career, someone is going to ignore your sketches and ideas and say, “Here’s a site I like. I want one designed just like this!” A bruised ego is bad enough, but knowing where to draw the line between inspiration and theft is even tougher.

There are times we need to just give in to clients—it is a service industry, after all. As an old teacher once said to me: “If you’re a designer, you will have to follow instructions and inane wishes of clients. If you want to be an artist, then paint pictures.”

It sticks in my mind because at the time he was strangling me while other students tried to pry his hands from my throat. My arguments about creativity and self-respect were naïve… and aggravating, judging by the teacher’s attempt to murder me. I’m still reminded by peers that the wishes of the client are of utmost importance in our line of work.

As a creative hired to build on a company’s brand, it’s up to you to not just be a pair of hands that knows how to do “that internet stuff” and build a site, but to know how that design will affect the client in the market and among a customer base. When faced with a request to copy another creative’s work, line for line, button for button and color for color, you have to consider the ramifications for your career and for the client or company. 

stolen bike tire, idea theft, intellectual property

A site that takes all its “inspiration” from another design is totally heinous to a creative, but it happens more often then we’d care to admit. Companies like to jump on bandwagons, and an idea that’s been tested and succeeds is a magnet for those who fear risk. As creatives, we love risk and we live to dare, so it is hard for us to understand. As professional business people, we need to understand the fear a client feels and how to guide them past it to success. Design is a message—it should be pointed, effective and unique. It should also make us feel good about the job we do and love.

But if a client wants you to take “inspiration” from an existing, successful website, the first question you must address is: Will the design of the example site fit the demographics and purpose of the client’s business? If it’s way off target, you need to express those concerns to your client. If the answer is, “I don’t care” or “Just do it, web monkey,” then you have a good idea of the client’s understanding of business. 

The next question is: Will there be any brand damage by using the design? Again, as a professional, it’s part of your service to protect the client’s reputation. It takes a gentle but firm demeanor to explain why using a knockoff of the Coca-Cola website is not a good idea for a funeral home. If targeted consumers see the brand’s website as a spoof of the original design, and they won’t take the company seriously. If word spreads on social media, huge embarrassment will ensue and, chances are, your name and reputation as the “designer” will get thrown under the bus. Oh, look, the 3:10 express to Unemployedsville is right on time.  

Funny HOW books

Let’s say the client is really excited about the idea of the funeral home having the same branding as Coke. There is only one final question for the client: Are there legal ramifications to using the same design? Are any copyrights or trademarks being infringed upon? The company could get a cease-and-desist order, which would shut down the site. You might very well be blamed for the whole ordeal. If the client’s answer to the legal question is “Eh, I think it’s fine,” you have a good idea of his level of business acumen. 

If you’re ordered to “take inspiration” from another design and all the outs described above haven’t worked, refer to this handy list of subtle acts of nonviolent resistance:

  • Steal the clients laptops and tell them you’re using them for “inspiration.”
  • In meetings, dress as a thief character from the 1920s by wearing a mask, striped shirt, black pants and flat cap and carry a bag marked “loot.”
  • Cry and ask for God’s forgiveness every time you say the word “inspiration” while meeting about the site.
  • Ask for an extra fee to keep your mouth shut about the “inspiration.” Wink every time you say, “inspiration.”
  • Make sure your contract indemnifies you from lawsuits. When the project’s done, send a nice note to the original site’s owner.
  • Demand that you be referred to by a pseudonym such as “Jaques LeStrap” in all correspondence so you can go under the radar once the site goes live.
  • In every discussion about the project, end it with questions about the plans to avoid litigation. 

These acts of protest should make your point clear: crime never pays. And clients in lockup also hardly ever pay.  

Car thief photo by Matt Biddulph; lonely tire photo by Lennox McDough.