Designers: Are your pet ideas cats or dogs?

(This is an edit of an article written years ago. Before posting to our blog, I was at the local mall and walked past the new Microsoft store which is located really close to the Apple store. Infer what you’d like.)

As far as originality goes, getting bent out of shape about whether something has been plagiarized (or not) isn’t as crucial for me as it used to be. There was a time, however, when it was. When perceived original ideas were flown like a flag or, if not so original, hidden in the shadows and kept from observant eyes.

I can sense your suspicion. So before you get too far ahead of me let me say: I love The Idea. I continue to strive to create The Idea as many others do. But today, I am less judgmental about The Idea than I ever was.

Years ago Larry, Lee and I — and sometimes Celia, not often though, because she was usually working on The Idea — would sit around mixing metaphors regarding the age-old plagiarism versus influence debate. We had heard somewhere (and therefore claimed it our own) that influence is like a cat and plagiarism, a dog. A cat pads its way into your life at no discernible point in time. Once yours, it’s not particularly obvious how the two of you got together, but you smile and are content with your aloof companionship. Her name is Influence and you liked having her around. But a dog? Well, a dog you jump in your car and go get. You point to the cutest one in the litter and exclaim: “that’s him. That’s the one I want”. Our debate often escalated to the point of identifying what we felt were examples of so-called cats and dogs we’d witness in design. Larry would see a piece in a showbook and he’d scratch at it. Lee would lift his leg in the direction of another. See for yourself. Look at any design showcase and tell me you don’t have a kennel right there in front of you. Page after page of pets staring at you with those big Walter Keane eyes.

Then one day it hit me. As I sat down in my conference room chair — a chair that was a rip-off of a knock-off of a Mario Bellini chair — my pretense walloped me right upside the head. Knocked off my fake Ray-Bans as I was listening to a mash-up of Tom Petty, George Harrison, The Chiffons, The Red Hot Chili Peppers and Kanye West. Plagiarism and influence abounds and there’s just no compelling reason to think it can be arbitrated. Debated? Sure. But legislated and arbitrated? By whom? And by what authority?

We’ve gotten to a point where there are so many products and so much merchandising today that it’s fruitless to lose sleep over whether The Idea is a cat or a dog.

Me? I can live with all kinds of pets. I just hope I don’t ever have to get a license.

Oh, and yeah, the image used in this post is by by f-zimba from Flickr Creative Commons. Hope he’s not missing any pets.


Comment by Desi — 13 July, 2010 at 12:05 pm

This Ted Talk by Johanna Blakley explores this idea nicely through the eyes of fashion.

Comment by Laura DuCharme Conboy, AIA — 14 July, 2010 at 5:26 pm

I had never heard of the “Cat vs. Dog” discussion (I have debated the Fox and the Hedgehog, though) but it is an excellent analogy and you have explained it eloquently, succinctly, and with enough humor that none of us need take offense if we recognize ourselves in the behavior. Thank you!

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