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Samuel Burrows: when inspiration becomes plagiarism

This is the creative industry. There are few qualities more separate than creativity and business, but the unification of these two mindsets is what we demand of an individual within our industry.

This article is a reflection of my first year as creative director of writing at Bonne Marque, it’s also an exposure of two unfortunate truths. Treat this as an open letter to all creative professionals: young and experienced, under whose control the industry can recover from its current situation. Now where shall I begin?

One parent’s evening at primary school – I think I was eight years old – my teacher, mum and dad spent far too long praising one of my watercolour paintings. But it wasn’t special to me. The entire class had painted the same oak tree while sitting at the same spot in the school playground. I knew the truth. Just as my friends had praised my painting in class because they liked me, my teacher and parents were lauding my art because they loved me and wanted me to do well. There were so many compliments and I hated every second of it.

I only remember because now, twenty years later, celebrating the anniversary of my first year in our creative industry, this moment strikes me as the perfect way to illustrate two unfortunate truths within our creative industry. Number one: the entire class had drawn the same oak tree and number two: lauding my art because they loved me.

Trends are killing our industry and are tantamount to plagiarism, and the majority of creatives have never learned the critical capacity to offer and receive critique with objectivity

In other words trends are killing our industry and are tantamount to plagiarism, and the majority of creatives have never learned the critical capacity to offer and receive critique with objectivity: a skill I somehow managed to pick up before turning nine.

I have never encountered an industry more influenced by trends. My novelist background tells me that following a trend is no more honourable than lazily agreeing to cliché; the actions of an uncreative seeking the industry’s permission to plagiarise, because a genuine creative despises plagiarism. The inspiration/plagiarism argument is simple. A creative understands the concept, process and limits of inspiration more than anyone else does. We all know the difference and the matter isn’t as grey as some – those who get caught – claim.

Quite honestly, this first unfortunate truth is truly unfathomable to me. I see no reason whatsoever for the talented to duplicate or mimic content in favour of good, honest creativity.

Young designers approach Bonne Marque for advice and we never fail to communicate to them the importance of doing their own thing. It’s with these young creatives in mind that we must stand against what is wrong. Let’s not be ignorant of the influence of improper schooling – and this could mean either academic or industry education – it is not the fault of the creative. They have been taught to follow. So shall we do something about this? What type of industry do we want to be?

If we are not creative, we are business and industry alone, which suggests a sense of cold professionalism. This would, in turn, imply that an individual within our industry is open to – and encourages – honest critique. The main difference between my outlook on writing as an amateur and as a professional is the extent to which I invite criticism. Bring it on, the harder the better. Why? Because a professional exists to improve.

But certain awards circles couldn’t be more clique. There are too many dead compliments: predetermined praise based on the creator or agency and not the content; and acclaim directed towards the work of an awards judge, of which there are quite a few in web design, because they wouldn’t want to upset a judge. This is the whole problem in a nutshell: this industry has forgotten – or never learned in the first place – to be objective.

In any other ‘professional’ industry, criticism is expected and even encouraged. If we set ourselves up to accept pure praise and nothing else then how can we become great?
To provide web design critique, a judge allocates a score: 1 to 10 or 1 to 100; sometimes a score for the overall experience of the site; sometimes separate scores for fields such as design or creativity. What do we really learn from this? Isn’t it a little reductive?

Look elsewhere for substance. It’s not strictly an award, but Webpicks by Communication Arts represents the critique ideal: succinct and written with attention to the finer details of design and decision.

Am I a creative idealist, naively chasing perfection? I don’t think so. Bonne Marque has the privilege of working with creatives who aren’t interested in trends, clichés and kitsch, people with humility who aren’t afraid of someone not laughing at their jokes; those who have learned to separate the empty critique – such as the praise I received from my friends, teacher and parents for my watercolour painting – from real, tough and productive criticism. You will let me know if I’m expecting too much, won’t you?

CREATED BY – Samuel Burrows – Creative director at Bonne Marque