Nice Idea, But I've Seen It Before!

Nice Idea, But I've Seen It Before!

Pemberton & Whitefoord Partner, Adrian Whitefoord, on the theme of taking inspiration from the ideas of others. He muses on some famous, celebrated individuals including (the seemingly unrelated) Tommy Cooper, Marvin Gaye, Jony Ive and Pablo Picasso.

“How many of us have shared that thought: “seen it”, “heard it”, “read it” before? The culprit may be a newspaper advert, underground poster, TV show jingle, website, wine label or even the doodle on the sketchbook in front of us.

Seeing a recycled idea is like hearing a joke twice. No matter how good it is, it doesn’t work the second time around. The surprise lost, the repetition irritating. How then do we explain the enduring persistence of the catchphrase?

The potency of the catchphrase is not as a trigger for repeated belly laughs, it is its function as a synapse between the deployer and the recipient. It connects and reinforces values.

“I don’t believe it” = Victor Meldrew = righteous indignation
“Stupid boy” = Captain Mainwaring = pompous authority
“Just like that” = Tommy Cooper = structured chaos

A catchphrase is more than verbal regurgitation.

Brands understand this well: “Every Little Helps”, “Vorsprung durch Technik”, “You’re So Money Supermarket”. Love them or hate them, strap-lines and slogans stick to the brain like limpets to the hull of a ship, and are often just as welcome. They conjure up not just the brand but also what it stands for.

The power of deliberate repetitious phrases, whether coined by a comedian or an advertising creative, is indisputable. But what if the slogan (or logo/ tune/ image) is changed slightly and used by someone other than its creator or owner? What if a successful core idea is enhanced or evolved in some way then reused?

A ‘knock-knock’ joke starts the same but evolves via an alternative progression and punch line. Most would not consider this a copy of the first ‘knock-knock’ joke (whatever it was). Ideas can work in the same way. The question is, when is the manipulation of a current idea acceptable and when is it a violation?

It is said that ‘imitation is the sincerest form of flattery’ but try telling that to Harebell Williams who was sued for $7.3m when Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’ (allegedly) plagiarised Marvin Gaye’s ‘Got to Give it Up’.

In his defence, Williams made a valid point:

“Everything that’s in a room was inspired by something or someone…. The verdict handicaps the creator out there that might be inspired by something else… This applies to fashion, music, design…. Anything. Artists such as Roy Lichtenstein would not be able to create without ramifications”.


These are indeed blurred lines. Should we consider Pop Art innovation or plagiarism? When does one stop and the other begin? The legalities associated with idea protection are a modern reality and intellectual copyright is a phenomenon familiar to us all. Jony Ive, the much-vaunted product designer for Apple and soon-to-be new chancellor of the Royal College of Art, personally owns 5,000 patents (apparently, one can’t be too careful). Steve Jobs however was quite open about pilfering the idea of the graphical user interface (GUI) from Xerox, only to become righteously indignant (Meldrew style) when Microsoft ‘borrowed’ it from Apple, resulting in a vitriolic lawsuit.

While the legalities are interesting, the moral tightrope walk is infinitely more intriguing.

Picasso once said: “good artists copy, great artists steal”. Self-deprecation from an artistic genius? Picasso was a sponge who absorbed styles, techniques and themes both classical and contemporary, then re-mastered them; effectively bending them to his whim. Did he steal or improve? Picasso recognised, as did Newton, that there is nothing shameful about ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’, if doing so takes you to a new and elevated place.

Does it ever matter where the new ideas come from? Often prolific periods of human ingenuity and invention are a by-product of war. The biggest PR coup in history, the first man on the moon, was only made possible by America stealing technological knowhow from Wernher von Braun and his team of scientists from Hitler’s V rocket programme. In a sense, ideas are amoral. A wheel can be used to grind corn or propel a tank. However, as members of the design profession our objectives are: to engage, inform enhance and enrich the experience of the end user via our creative product. The design industry should not be devoid of a moral compass.

We should never be afraid of taking inspiration from the ideas of others, but equally we must be mindful that sometimes ‘new’ ideas are the product of subconscious machinations. Occasionally we embrace a fresh thought or principle only to later experience our personal “nice idea but I’ve seen it before”moment. Frustrating as that realisation may be, the filtration process is essential to avoid creative cloning. Premeditated copying damages the reputation of the perpetrator and their profession.

Whether there are any truly original ideas or whether our senses, experiences and education preclude them will always divide a debate. I believe in the notion that there is a unique idea waiting just over the horizon every time I engage with a new brief. We should celebrate the fact that we are only likely to discover it thanks to the great designs and designers that have set us on the right course.

Never give up on finding new ideas. Ideas give us momentum; they are the wind in our sail.”

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