Insights - Design & Product

Logo Controversies

Would a well-known studio rip-off a competitor’s brand identity in today’s fishbowl world? Or is it more a case of cliches vs copies?

Cartoon with man shouting

At THC, we call it the ‘logo gladiator games.’

As soon as a new logo is announced, a tide of opinion arises. Often, this peaks with a meme-fest (remember AirBnB), and then dies down as the brand continues with business as usual. Accusations of copying and IP violation, however, are a different matter, because they call into question the integrity of the creator, not to mention the possibility of lawsuits.

Looking Through the Glassdoor

Recently Glassdoor, the employee review and job search site, launched a rebrand in partnership with Studio Koto. Immediately Tali Rapaport, co-founder, Puck, an employer-branding and hiring platform, tweeted that the new identity was a rip-off. Puck’s identity was launched in 2021.

Glassdoor responded to the tweet, hedging their bets between ”A good example of how cultural trends and market needs can lead to similar creative solutions,” and “thanks for bringing it to our attention.”

Comparison of glassdoor and Puck brand identity
Comparison of Glassdoor brand identity (2023) and Puck brand identity (2021) tweeted by Puck co-founder, Tali Rapaport
Screenshot of Glassdoor tweet
Glassdoor’s response to the Puck accusation

Interestingly, Studio Koto was in the middle of another storm last year, when its logo for Jack-Dorsey owned Bolt, was accused of being ‘lazy and derivative.’

Comparison of Bolt and Volt logos
The logo for Bolt, also created by Studio Koto, was slammed for ripping-off Volt TV

Would a studio as well-respected as Koto deliberately copy the brand identity of a smaller competitor in today’s fishbowl world?

Says Anant Ahuja, founder of creative agency, Irregulars Alliance, “I don’t think Koto would go all the way and copy someone else’s work. It is unfortunate that both the pieces ended up looking similar. If we‘re to get granular, there are many differences that can be pointed out just by comparing these pieces side by side. We‘re exposed to so much stimuli on a regular basis, it‘s really hard to not have stuff stuck in your sub-conscience. It just ends up playing out in weird ways.”

Homogeneity is Stifling Creativity

The easy duplication and proliferation of visual styles created by the Internet has resulted in a massive dulling down of creativity. Remember Corporate Memphis? The flat-colour illustration style with outsized limbs was every startup’s preferred look in 2020, because “it makes tech companies feel friendly and approachable.” Visual elements like illustrations and templates are available for a few dollars in ever-growing image libraries – and we’re not sure where the AI-platforms will lead us yet.

Cartoon of people climbing ladder in front of mobile phone
In 2020, the Corporate Memphis illustration style was adopted by a large number of tech companies

The visual styles adopted by many SaaS platforms have illustrations at their core. Take Mailchimp and Notion, for instance. While designers may view their styles as vastly different, there is no denying that they conform to a broader ‘SaaS tool aesthetic.’

If you start with the same mood boards and sources of inspiration, you are bound to end up in similar places.

notion mailchimp hoardings
While to the trained eye these are vastly different, there is no denying the commonality that runs through the visual/communication styles adopted by SaaS tools

Finite Visual Devices & Combinations

When the Bolt controversy erupted, Brian Collins founder of Collins New York, another well-respected studio, defended Koto saying they were justified in tapping into design tropes like the lightening bolt hidden in typography.

There are a finite number of visual devices, letterforms and permutations and it is now more likely than ever, that designers working in opposite sides of the world, on brands from completely different industries, will end up with similar-looking solutions.

F1 and futuro logo comparision
This new F1 logo was created by Wieden+Kennedy in 2017. 3M alleged that the logo was similar to that of Futuro, their brand of compression tights. European Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO) records showed that 3M registered a pan-European trademark to its logo in June 2017, while F1 did not file until later that year. Finally F1 caved in to pressure from 3M, and removed ‘therapeutic clothing’ from its list of trademark classes.
Allegion a US-based security company was branded by Lipincott in 2014. Orient Electric, an Indian home devices company, also released a new logo in 2014. Avala, a US-based AI company, was branded by Studio Play in 2023.

What’s a Brand to Do?

We asked Mohor Ray Dahiya, co-founder of design studio, Codesign, what their process for ensuring uniqueness was. Here’s what she suggests:

  • Run checks through reverse image searches. This can range from Google Image Search to Tineye, Yandex or even Pintrest. Checking through multiple sources is advisable so you cast a wider net. This should be done right at an initial sketch level with anything that seems promising.
  • Re-run all the searches with refined, selected options that you want to present to the client. While it may not turn up any new red flags, sometimes the refined logo may have veered far enough to warrant a new search for similar options.
  • Selected logo/logos should be run through trademark searches. While you can run a preliminary check on the public Indian database, it is advisable to engage the legal team to do a much more thorough job (across classes if required). 
  • There are occasions when the legal team might come back with red flags. These should be discussed at length with the client and legal team to ascertain level of risk, and accordingly modified, re-done or taken forward as is.

Even this rigorous process may not be fool-proof, as the above examples show.

Itu Chaudhari, founder of Itu Chaudhuri Design, has this interesting advice for brands. “To be safe,“ he says, “be interesting and ownable.“

“A more useful concept than uniqueness and the squabbles that surround it is ownability. A design can pass the legal test of uniqueness and yet be confused with another. The loss is just as real as a legal infringement. Ownability isn’t easy to define either, but here’s what we use: A design is ownable if it is unlikely to be unintentionally copied.”

Itu Chaudhuri, Founder, Itu Chaudhuri Design

The L and T counter-forms making a lightning bolt in the Bolt logo is just the sort of idea that would be weeded out, suggests Chaudhuri. “The seasoned (or jaded) eye sees it as a clever, but trite, just-so gimmick,“ he says, “and expects someone to have done it before, and to do so after. Too good to be true.“

Spotting trite ideas early in the design stage, therefore, may be the best way to safeguard the ownability of your design.

2 Comments

  1. I’ve always loved THC but you have outdone yourself with the article. Every designer and client needs to read it

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