Last week, Spencer Chen, the VP of Marketing and Business Development at Alibaba and a self-described “San Francisco startup personality,” tweeted pictures of four logos and the message, “Nothing is original, esp. in #design. (btw, these are NOT the logos of Medium AirBNB, Flipboard, and Beats)”. The four images were taken from Trademarks & Symbols of the World, a collection from Yasaburo Kuwayama published in 1989, and they indeed did look remarkably similar to the logos of the four very modern (and very successful) companies.

Were these all simply blatant cases of plagiarism, or did they say something broader about the state of modern design? To get some context, we got in touch with Ian Lynam, the Tokyo-based head of Ian Lynam Design, who is also a member of the faculties of Tokyo at Meme Design School, Temple University Japan, and Vermont College of Fine Arts. His most recent book is Parting It Out: Writings on Graphic Design.


Before Spencer Chen’s tweet, were you aware that there were similarities between the logos of the companies he pointed out and the examples he noted?

There was a bit of a ruckus online when Airbnb’s new logo was launched, as it looked similar to another company’s logo. I wasn’t aware of how closely each of these logos resembled pre-existing work, but it isn’t surprising. Flipboard’s logo is based on modular squares, and that type of theme has been done to death over the past 75 years. In general, each of these logos is typographic in nature, and humans can only push the legibility and readability of letterforms so far. If they become truly unreadable, they don’t communicate, so it’s natural that visual commonalities will occur.

Does the start-up world have a particular reputation where copying logos or design is more common?

The realm of identity design for technology companies is interesting. You have Facebook’s old logo, which was the slightest tweak of a preexisting typeface done by professional designers to Yahoo!’s new logo, which is the slightest tweak of a preexisting typeface by a non-designer and an intern. Google Fonts are dominated by fonts that look like other fonts. But MailChimp hired designer Jessica Hische to redesign its word mark, and she did so in a way that is highly original. 

In general, copying is presently endemic to the culture of design. It is alluded to in manifestos by popular design figures and commodified in products by other popular design figures. That tech companies are facing these issues is just a reflection of popular culture and our collective coming to terms with appropriation—one of the tenets of postmodernism in aesthetics.

It’s interesting to me that these similarities were pointed out by someone in marketing. I’m curious if as a designer and a student of the history of design, you’re constantly noticing things that look they borrowed or took from something else? If so, are the examples Chen highlighted particularly egregious or pretty run of the mill?

They’re pretty standard. Designers are constantly recycling history. The past decade has seen the work of Herb Lubalin and Tony DiSpigna recycled by others and claimed as original, but that’s indicative of the state of culture today. I interviewed design critic Mr. Keedy a while ago and he put it well: “The second half of the 20th Century (in terms of design) was mostly a rehash and elaboration of the first half.”

When most folks’ modus operandi is “Talent borrows, genius steals,” then everyone tries to be a proverbial genius.

Generally, are logos an aspect of design where a lot of over-borrowing or plagiarism happens?

Yes. For example, the UPS logo was a slight modification of characters from an existing typeface, which was not licensed when the identity was used. The design group involved had to pay Fontshop International, the publisher of the typeface, a significant amount of money to smooth things over after the UPS rebrand launched in 2003. Design in general is a place where appropriation happens a lot.

Do the principles behind logo design make it more likely that this copying will happen, consciously or unconsciously?

Not principles so much as an environment where it is increasingly hard to make work that is original. Everyone uses the same digital tools, is connected to an inexhaustible global database of “inspiration,” and where visual style is codified. The best selling graphic design book series at present is the Los Logos, published by Die Gestalten Verlag. Within, you have different slices of types of logos according to contemporary trends. If you are intently looking at what everyone else is doing, it’s hard to break out of the box.

Within the design community, is the book Trademarks & Symbols of the World a well-known resource?

Yes. It started popping up on renowned designers’ Flickr feeds regularly a decade ago as an object of inspiration and design fetishization. Someone scanned the first few volumes and put them online, and design communities online have noted it regularly from the “olden days” of Newstoday/QBN to Reddit today.

What can you tell me about Yasaburo Kuwayama, who put together Trademarks & Symbols?

Kuwayama is an identity and type designer born in 1938. He went to Musashino University and went on to design the typeface Taiposu with Shoichi Ito for photo lettering as an extension of his studies in 1959. His typeface design was lauded for its modular approach—each stroke of the font can be broken down and reconfigured. Taiposu was digitized and released as a family of OpenType fonts in 2008. While not a major figure in the Japanese design world, his work is known and respected.