Michael Bloomberg's Group Stole a GOOD Designer's Ideas
After his designs were copied by the new centrist No Labels group, we asked Thomas Porostocky some questions.
Thomas Porostocky has had an interesting week. Porostocky is a designer and a friend of ours here at GOOD. He first came to our attention because of a project he works on called We Need More Party Animals, which is an organization devoted to stopping partisanship and which features many animals designed to look like the traditional Democratic donkey and Republican elephant. We featured stickers of these animals in our first issue, and Porostocky has done a bunch more work for us as well.
In the middle of this week, Michael Bloomberg and a host of other centrist politicians launched an organization called No Labels, which is also designed to stop partisanship and which had a design featuring very familiar animals dressed up in red, white, and blue. The internet got all over this, which resulted first in a small feud—through the media—between Porostocky and Dave Warren, the designer from Fly Communications, which was hired by No Labels to create their identity. The back and forth is funny (never tell someone to google you, as a retort), and you can read it here. After first denying the charge and then admitting to accidental theft, No Labels pulled the design.
Now that the dust is settled a little and he has time to talk, I asked Porostocky some additional questions about the fiasco:
GOOD: Can you tell me a little about the history of the party animals? How did that idea start? When did you first make them?
Thomas Porostocky: The party animals were initially conceived in my senior year of grad school at the School of Visual Arts in New York (that was 2005). It was a somewhat tumultuous political time (although looking back, maybe not as bad as it is today), and the idea came around fairly organically because of it. I was tired of the squabbling and the polarized with-us-or-against-us nature of America politics, and wanted to make a light-hearted gesture about this need for more options for those who didn't feel comfortable with either political party. Not being an American, I had always pictured the country as the land of choice and variety, and yet, when it came to politics, there was anything but.
It got a fairly good response in my circle (and from GOOD, of course), and so with my friend Ed McKirdy, we created the MorePartyAnimals website to help it grow.
G: How did the copying end up coming to your attention?
TP: The issue came to my attention via a few friends. It really didn't take long to blow up into a bigger deal, and I've been extremely amazed at the support of both friends, colleagues and strangers. Frankly, a lot of them were more angry and passionate than I was.
G: The idea of the party animals is perhaps even more original than just specific animal drawings. If Fly had the same idea, but with different animals, would you have been equally angry?
TP: I can understand why an organization like No Labels came to have similar ideas about the political scene in this country. Similar sentiments and ideas tend to emerge when the times call for it, so I'm not necessarily surprised to see a group with a cause that parallels MPA. I am surprised that they didn't reach out to us in the first place, though.
G: As a designer, do you feel like there are any broader lessons or takeaways from this, especially as it speaks to the new horizons of a culture where everything is on the internet and potentially shareable or copyable.
TP: The first one is pretty simple: Don't steal. I think it's important to note that in this instance, this wasn't a gray area, it wasn't a case of being inspired by reference material. The work was lifted and used as is in a lot of cases. You can't blame internet culture on this one, it's a simple case of laziness and lack of character on the part of the designer.
From there on things get a little more mucky. Inspiration and reference material is nothing new. It's often part of the process for designers and agencies. I've been part of hectic agency pitches and projects that rifle through hundreds of images as part of the conceptualization process (these images are, of course, gathered from various resources like Google, Flickr, etc.). They key is to know when the inspiration stops and the original thought begins. One needs to be wary of found work that takes on a life of its own. If you can't take the reference material out of your project without seriously compromising your message, you have a problem. Take ownership of your ideas, and know where they came from. While the act of IP theft might not always be malicious, ambivalence and laziness is what leads to trouble.
Simply ignoring what's out there is not realistic. Obviously while we can't all go live in the woods (although some days, I don't think it's such bad idea). However we can often control what we do with anything we see and experience. But beware the lure of too much inspiration; it's a dangerous tease. There's nothing worse than having an idea squatting in your head, but knowing you can't use it.