Copycat design: sometimes a copy is just a coincidence

Ross Hall

April 18, 2021
(Updated on June 17, 2021)

MacBeth written in large black letters against a red background

Another row has broken out over “copycat” designs from What We Wear. Danielle Bernstein is accused of stealing a dress design from London based designer Ngoni Chikwenengere. While Chikwenengere cries foul, Epstein argues the design is so generic as to be meaningless. With a certain inevitability, lawyers are called and death threats issued.

I have sympathy with both points of view. No doubt, Chikwenengere poured her heart and soul into her design. Certainly the design from What We Wear is remarkably similar. Yet I’ve seen similar dresses and tops for as long as I can remember.

Some months ago I had my own copycat experience while going through early book cover experiments. At the time I was playing with bold contrasts and although most of my efforts did not deserve to see light of day, Macbeth filtered through. I set it up on social media and my blog, ready to share what I thought was a decent piece of past work.

It was then I found Catherine Zask’s poster for the same play tucked away in one of the many design books in my library. While mine isn’t a direct copy, it has a striking similarity. Had I simply copied it? I didn’t remember it. Maybe I saw it in passing and buried it in my subconscious, ready to bring up when needed? Perhaps, but the receipt was still in the book (I sometimes use them as bookmarks), and I bought it several months after completing my design.

So what happened?

Perhaps we both drew on the same inspiration for our designs. Maybe I saw hers in an exhibition somewhere and filed it away in my subconscious. It could be “The Scottish Play” is so popular this coincidence was inevitable.

Social media has made the potential for coincidences to surface far greater. A glance at the “Look Book” of Chikwenengere’s website shows designs that could come from any high street retailer. The same applies to What We Wear. In our pre-social world we might not have noticed as geography limited our scope, only now we can look at the world. Just as some can find hidden messages in the Bible predicting political assassinations, so it is inevitable we’ll find similarities and coincidences.

As designers, we should protect our work and identify where we think copying is going on. It’s also important to acknowledge coincidences happen. Reaching out in private to a potential copycat is far better than hitting the nuclear option and later having to retract or pay damages. Approach in a spirit of enquiry and collaboration and you’re more likely to get a response than “You stole my stuff”, as seems to be the default for many.

None of this excludes the “nuclear option” of going to court. As a solicitor friend of mine once commented, “when it goes to court only the lawyers win.”

I'm Ross Hall, a writer and researcher based in Kobe, Japan. You can talk to me about B2B, sustainability and strategic management.

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