Innovate, Don’t Imitate: Design for Success!

Working together as a team for innovation

Comedians who used to do impressions of politicians and celebrities would be the first to say, “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” They said it so they wouldn’t be assassinated by the CIA or beaten just short of death Frank Sinatra’s boys. Maybe it works for entertainment but does it work in business?

Too often some businesses believe that they should let the competition break new ideas into the public eye and then jump on the bandwagon. There are several problems with that thinking.

The first is that the company that brings their product to market first will have the lion’s share of the market. Latecomers will be seen as poor imitators no matter how good their version may be.

The second is the imitation product is usually never as good as the product it wants to replace. Even with the functionality and cost of the Kindle and Nook compared with the iPad, Apple still retains well over half the market share while other tablets and readers struggle to reach 10% of the market share.

Innovation in Branding

It’s not just your product that defines your place amongst competitors. In imitation you set yourself up as being in second, third or last place in business. As your brand defines your company and it is the first contact consumers and prospective clients will have of you, it’s important to show you are competent, innovative and worth the trust of the client’s investment in their own business and life.

Most people misunderstand what a brand vs. a logo is when it comes to business identities. Many people believe a brand only consists of a few elements – a logo, a slogan or tagline and maybe a theme song that runs in every commercial. In reality, it is much more complicated than that. A brand is the corporate/company image. The old good guys wear white cowboy hats and villains wear black hats.

The fundamental idea and core concept behind having a brand is that everything a company does, everything it owns and everything it produces should reflect the values and aims of the business as a whole.

It is the consistency of this core idea that makes up the company, driving it, showing what it stands for, what it believes in and why it exists. It is not purely a logo and tagline. Those are the identity. You can describe a ‘brand’ as an organization, service or product with a “personality” that is shaped by the perceptions of the audience/consumers. A graphic designer cannot “make” a brand – only the audience can do this from how the company is perceived.

As an example, Apple, as a company with a strong brand, projects a humanistic corporate culture and a strong corporate ethic, one that is characterized by volunteerism, support of humanitarian causes and involvement in the community. These values of the business are evident throughout everything they do, from their innovative products and advertising, right through to their customer service. Apple is an emotionally humanist brand that connects with their customers – when people buy or use their products or services; they feel part of the brand. It is this emotional connection that creates their brand – not purely their products and a very recognizable and innovative identifiable logo. Part of a businesses identity, however, is not just the logo – identity, for Apple is the design of their products, packaging, stationery, ads, and, of course, the Apple logo.

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So, how do you want your business to be identified and perceived? Your actions are the foundation for brand and identity.

Do You Know About Copyrights?

An unfortunate practice for both small and large businesses is people believing that an image on the web is free for the taking. Nothing could be further from the truth. Using images you find on the internet or scan from a book or pamphlet is theft under the 1976 Copyright Law.

Basically, whoever created the work – an illustration, photograph or design, unless transferred only through written agreement, is the owner of the copyright. If you use that image, copy it, print it, distribute it or use it for any purpose business or personal, you have stolen it and are liable under the copyright law for damages, attorney’s fees and possible fines that can be as high as $250,000 PER violation. Naturally, there’s more to it than just this basic layperson’s explanation but the overall message is that there’s no need to use or copy an existing work.

A large corporation was found guilty of a huge copyright violation several years ago. The head of creative services handed out products from a small company that was producing products within the same industry. His order to the creative staff was to copy the look and feel of the products.

To make a long story short, the company was sued, it cost them millions of dollars and damaged their brand to the point they never quite recovered. There reaction to innovating products in the future was equally flawed. Several creative leaders were charged with compiling boards of competitors’ products and showing specific examples of how these products could be used as “inspiration” without, so they thought, violating the copyright law. Eventually they saw the flaw in their plan and dropped the “inspiration only” way of working in favor of encouraging and considering innovation. Still, there are many current and former employees who sit upon the secret of the “inspiration boards,” as they were called. This is yet another danger to the company’s brand, as well as what could become a financial nightmare, bordering on company bankruptcy.

Have You Broken the Copyright Law?

Everybody has broken the copyright law! From borrowing a friend’s music CD for downloading, a software application that gets passed around or posting an image found on the internet to a personal Facebook page without so much as a copyright notice, the copyright law is constantly broken. This isn’t to say that the infringements go without punishment. There are cases where people who downloaded music MP3s from the internet having judgments of several million dollars levied against them and large corporations having to pay large fines for using fonts they didn’t own. That’s just a few examples. The use of copyrighted images is prosecuted daily.

The horror of prosecution is that it can include employees that were just following orders to use the images and employers who produced something using a copyrighted image an employee decided to use without managerial approval. When it comes to using images, there is no reason to steal. Stock image companies offer low rates for images and the use is legal. Why chance a lawsuit when you can easily find either the same image or one that is similar for rates as low as $1.00?

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From retro photos, to clip art, vectors and videos, stock sources have millions of choices for a reasonable amount.

Some stock sites allow you to buy as you go or take subscriptions if you buy numerous images every month. Just make sure you purchase the correct rights for usage. Royalty free and managed rights are different uses.

Some stock sources sell images for royalty free use for as little as a dollar. For costs like these, why chance copyright infringement?

Trust a Professional!

In the case of print design for logos, signage and business stationery or your web site and social media, trust the professional you hire. A problem many professional designers face is when a client shows them an existing design and requests the same thing for their business site. The problem of using a copyrighted design is the question of infringement or derivative work. The changes have to be different enough that one cannot look at the original design and see that the new design is similar to the point of being a direct copy.

A design professional will be able to tell you how far you can take inspiration and direct your desire for the look of your brand with what is not only legal but also what will best serve the needs of your prospective customers.

You may want your site to look like the Coke-a-Cola site but will that layout and navigation serve your product or service? A professional client/designer can discuss and build a creative brief that the designer can use to give you the look you desire for your brand while assuring you that your site is a perfect fit for brand, identity and legal use of images, fonts and innovation.

There needs to be an understanding between the designer and client. The client must be able to verbalize their anticipated brand to the designer. By all means, show examples of other brands, sites, print pieces, color palettes, etc. This will all help the designer draw the research together and create a cohesive and effective identity for your business.

This trust on your part is driven by the designer’s examples of past work and successes. What they do or have done for other clients can be done for you, too, but stay away from these creativity killers:

  • Don’t tell the designer that your 9 year-old niece won a second grade art contest and she will be shown the work for her opinion. A 9 year-old doesn’t know business or branding.
  • Don’t bring in a friend who once took an art class for the very same reasons as mentioned above. Too many cooks spoil the broth.
  • Too many cooks spoil the broth! Don’t subject the design to every employee in your company for their opinion. Most people won’t know what to say but will say something so they don’t appear to be useless. In the corporate world, these people are called “commidiots.” They will gum up the process with an uninformed opinion for the sake of being heard. Go with your gut feelings, as it is YOUR business.
  • If you don’t understand why something has been designed in some way, just ask the designer why. A professional designer has a reason for every decision. Tying all the elements together to make one effective message is their job and they can easily explain why something was done and why something was NOT done.
  • Feel free to make changes along the way because you’re paying for it. Most designers charge an hourly rate with milestone payments along the way. If you change your mind from the original creative brief, by all means, it’s your business and you need to be sure it fits your brand. Just make sure you understand that a when a one month project turns into two months, it will cost you twice as much. It’s best to make sure you have targeted your brand before you start designing your identity to fit it.
  • Don’t turn down a design direction and say that you’ll “know what (you) like when (you) see it.” Humans are not able to read minds. Go back and read the passage about building a creative brief with the designer. The creative brief is the architectural plans for building your brand identity. Imagine having a plumber build you an entire bathroom and then saying you don’t like it, so they should try again until you see what you like. You start a bathroom remodel by picking colors, tile, fixtures, etc. That is all drawn into blueprints and then put together. There are no surprises. A design for a web site, etc. should be run the same way.
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If you’re the designer, you have some rules to follow:

  • Keep the process transparent. Keep the client in the loop so they can see the progress and question what they don’t understand. Payments AND decisions are based on milestones. The design process is comprised of “give-me-money-get-your-design.” A great project is walking hand-in-hand with your client to create a superior solution to the client’s design needs.
  • Design is more than a pretty picture. Great design solves problems with the best possible solution. It is thoughtful and a service to the client and not second-grade finger painting. The utmost concern is how will it best serve the client’s needs.
  • Have a contract so all parties understand what is involved in the design process. Anything left open to question does a disservice to the designer and the client. Neither party should deviate from that agreement. If additions must be added, then both parties must negotiate in good faith.
  • This is not your project – it’s the client’s project. It is your responsibility to listen to what the client wants, draw out answers when the client can’t verbalize the answers you need to give them the right solution. Sometimes the client wants one thing but needs another. Learn to differentiate the two and include the client in the proper solution.

Fulfill the client’s needs and reach further. Innovate a solution that will not only please the client but will also help them evolve and grow their business. Small solutions lead to small ROI. Grand solutions lead to incredible results and that means happy clients. A happy client is the best end result of any project!

Top image courtesy of GL Stock Images

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4 thoughts on “Innovate, Don’t Imitate: Design for Success!

  1. I often get so confused when it comes to the different rights one site may offer for a particular image. Then another site offers different rights and I don’t always get what they are trying to say. It’s getting a bit too cumbersome to find images you can use without fearing you’ve done something bad because you just didn’t know what you had to do! Up until now I tried to be the designer but maybe it’s time I stopped wasted my time and invest in a real designer who could save me a lot of time and nerves.

  2. South Florida says:

    “Interesting points. I have thought about that, but hadn’t seen or heard anything about the timing of posts and Tweets etc.

    I will keep that in mind, thanks for the nice information.”

  3. Pamela S.Chuck says:

    Loved this post ..! Thanks for the great, clear delineation of the different types of content curation and how to do it better. While I already use some of the tools you mentioned I really appreciate the new one I was aware of. I’ll check them out.

  4. What great advice!

    I think you’ve written a very fair and sound way for both clients and designers to approach a project and stay safe with respect to the copyright law.

    I’m going to share this with my network of designers and clients. Thank you!