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Inspiration or Rip-Off? From "I Heart NY" Tees to Amex Smiley Face Ads

Years ago, I participated in a brainstorming session with Richard Saul Wurman, the entrepreneurial whiz and founder of the TED Conference. During our meeting he made a simple statement: "Ideas are free, it's what you do with them that counts." A chill ran up my spine. I said nothing for the rest of the meeting, for fear that any creative spark I offered would be fair game.

This memory begs the question: Who owns an idea? What's the difference between being influenced by someone's creativity or simply stealing it?

I love New York

The ubiquitous "I (Heart) NY symbol designed by Milton Glaser must hold the world record for the greatest number of design ripoffs.


However, somewhere in the back of Glaser's virtuosic mind was Robert Indiana's LOVE sculpture a seed of inspiration?


Shepard Fairey's infamous Obama campaign poster, with its questionable appropriation of an AP photo, appears Warholesque to some. Fast Company writer Cliff Kuang recently exposed Absolut Vodka's "Anthem" commercials by TBWA\Chiat\Day as an obvious lift of Stefan Sagmeister's arresting typographic sculptures.

A current example of this inspiration vs. exploitation tug of war is the "Take Charge" ad campaign from American Express by Ogilvy & Mather. The commercial shows clever staging of common objects that express human like facial expressions.

Hmmm...where have I seen this before?

Photographer Francois Robert, along with his brother Jean, has been photographing doorknobs, handbags, bathroom sinks and tools in precisely the same way for decades. They have been published in books, widely exhibited and made into products. I covered his whimsical carpet tiles for FLOR here back in July.


He was not involved with the creation of the ads, received no acknowledgement and certainly no compensation. After some legal debate, as Robert told me, he was flatly informed that the "idea" of photographing everyday objects to reveal their "human" characteristics couldn't be copyrighted. Case closed.

But isn't that Bach's Cello Suite No.1 in the background? Didn't Ogilvy pay for the rights to use it? And what about the musician performing it? Maybe he did it for a few quarters tossed into his cello case. That's more than Robert got for his "inspiration."

The real tragedy is that TV audiences will think that American Express (& Ogilvy) are the "creative" ones, leaving Francois Robert, unfortunately, in the shadow.

New commercials for's Kindle have a ripe smell of creative theft as well. Its jaunty overhead view of stop-motion animation, although not a new technique, immediately brings to mind Oren Lavie's beautiful music video, Her Morning Elegance. Even the soundtrack used in the spot reflects the same sonic mood.

The ads for the ABC sci-fi TV series V feature a bisected face of a beautiful woman with menacing eyes. Rewind to the poster for the 1982 erotic thriller Cat People starring Nastassia Kinsky and there you have it—the source, right down to the hairstyle.


The world is fast becoming one huge scrap heap of images and ideas that are picked over by a heaving mass of creative talent, pros and amateurs that is expanding exponentially. There are more "designers" now than there were five minutes ago. All innocently gather inspiration from countless sources that can sometimes cause the lines of original thought and plagiarism to get very blurry. This is especially dangerous when "swipe art" is used for visual demonstrations to unassuming corporate clients.

The speed at which cool ideas circle the globe is measured in seconds. Originality is increasingly difficult in this wired world of relentless image bombardment. Who knows what triggers an idea—consciously or unconsciously.


Last year, I created the poster on the left as a birthday tribute to the great Swiss designer Fritz Gottschalk. The late Pierre Mendell designed the beautiful poster on the right in 1986.

Inspiration? Appropriation? Exploitation? You be the judge.

Read more of Ken Carbone's Yes to Less blog
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Ken Carbone is among America's most respected graphic designers, whose work is renowned for its clarity and intelligence. He has built an international reputation creating outstanding programs for world-class clients, including Tiffany & Co., W.L Gore, Herman Miller, PBS, Christie's, Nonesuch Records, the W Hotel Group, and The Taubman Company. His clients also include celebrated cultural institutions such as the Museé du Louvre, The Museum of Modern Art, The Pierpont Morgan Library, The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and the High Museum of Art.

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  • Jon Wagner

    Regarding that AmEx Faces campaign...French photographer Theodore Brauner photographed faces in inanimate objects in the 1950s, 40+ years before Francois and Jean Robert did it. So perhaps we should ask the Robert brothers where they go their "original" idea.

  • Jonathan Amm

    Great post Ken! To reinforce your point Ogilvy Johannesburg used the same 'faces' concept to showcase the face lift Audi A3 with TV and print advertising in South Africa back in 2006. I wonder how American Express feels now that they have been sold an idea that has already been stolen twice before!

    Struggled to find actual footage of the ad - save for a web link below:

  • Shama Kabani

    A very thought provoking article! I wonder though - isn't every form of marketing a mashup of SOME old ideas?

  • Bruce Bever

    There is an interesting article here:
    that addresses the violation of Chicago Photographer, Jim Krantz by Richard Prince. Prince photographed a photograph of Krantz's and now makes money on the sale of that piece, while Krantz receives nothing. It boggles the mind.

    A note about the Oren Lavie video: Surely it was inspired by Peter Gabriel's "Sledge Hammer" video, however different they are in final presentation. Though I feel Lavie's work was inspired, and does not steal, from Gabriel, it would be interesting to know Gabriel's (or more specifically, his director's) feelings about Lavie's video.

  • Alissa Walker

    Anyone who has worked at an ad agency knows exactly how this goes. Someone (often the client, but sometimes a creative) brings in a music video, a piece of fine artwork, a recent film, a popular song--as "reference." That's code for "copy this EXACTLY or you're fired."

  • Bryan Rees

    Your point about the TV audience viewing the more commercial application as the 'real' creative and the original artist gets little credit is spot-on. Have you seen the new Seroquel XR commercials? IMO they're a total rip-off of Lui Bolin's Camouflage Art. It's sad that agencies have stooped so low to just completely rip-off original art and give no credit or compensation to the artitsts for the concept. Thanks for bringing awareness to this. Great post.

  • mikescheiner

    As always, great POV Ken. Isn't it more about using design reference (graphic, color, photo, architecture, etc.) as inspiration for texture, technique or style. Which can be said about the Robert Indiana and Milton Glaser reference. Versus ripping something off directly, like the AMEX work. Much of what you point out is articulated in a chronological and dissecting POV in the book "The Anatomy of Design" by Steven Heller and Mirko ilic. As we all know, and have done regularly, every designer or artist uses something as inspiration. It's just a question of using that reference as a source of inspiration or a source of plagiarism.