The Design Observer Group

Posted 05.11.06

Michael Bierut

I Am a Plagiarist

Left: Page from 12 T y p o graphical Interpretations, Willi Kunz, 1975
Right: Poster for the Yale School of Architecture, Michael Bierut, 2005

The New York media world has been obsessed of late with the story of Kaavya Viswanathan, a Harvard undergraduate who landed a two-book deal for $500,000 from Little, Brown while still in high school. Within weeks of the publication of her first novel, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life, allegations arose that she had copied passages from books by another young-adult author. Soon schadenfreude-fueled investigators uncovered similaries to still other books. Confronted with the near-duplicate passages, Viswanathan first denied everything ("I have no idea what you are talking about."), then conceded inadvertent wrongdoing ("Any phrasing similarities between her works and mine were completely unintentional and unconscious."), and finally admitted to The New York Times that the problem was her photographic memory ('''I remember by reading. I never take notes...I really thought the words were my own.")

Kurt Andersen, assessing the controversy in New York Magazine, observed, "Plagiarists almost never simply confess. There are always mitigating circumstances."

Well, let me be the first to come clean: I am a plagiarist.

Or am I? About a year ago, I was asked by a longtime client, the Yale School of Architecture, to design a poster for a symposium they were organizing. The event had one of the most cumbersome names I'd ever been asked to handle: "Non-Standard Structures: An Organic Order of Irregular Geometries, Hybrid Members, and Chaotic Assemblies." I was stumped. I described my interpretation of the symposium's theme — the strange forms that can result from computer-generated processes — to one of my partners, Abbott Miller, and he suggested I use a version of Hoefler & Frere-Jones's as-of-yet unreleased typeface Retina. This was a great idea. Designed for very small reproduction on newsprint, the letterforms were drawn with exaggerated interior forms to compensate for ink spread. Blown up to headline size, the font looked bizarrely distorted, but each oddity was a product of nothing more than technical requirements: an apt metaphor for the design work that the symposium would address.

Still, that was a long headline. It was hard to make the letterforms big enough to demonstrate the distortion. I tried a bunch of variations without success. Finally, with the deadline looming, out of nowhere a picture formed in my mind: big type at the top, reducing in size from line to line as it moved down the poster, almost a parody of that long symposium title. And one more finishing touch: thick bars underlining every word. This approach came together quickly. It was one of those solutions that, for me at least, had a mysterious sense of preordained rightness.

And for good reason. My solution was very similar to something I had seen almost 30 years ago, a piece by one of my favorite designers, Willi Kunz. There are differences, of course: Kunz's type goes from small to big, and my goes the other way around; Kunz's horizontal lines change size, and mine do not; and, naturally, Kunz uses Akzidenz Grotesk, rather than a typeface that wouldn't be invented until 2002. But still, the black on white, the change in typographic scale, the underscores: all these add up to two solutions that look more alike than different.

I didn't realize this until a few weeks ago, when I was looking through the newly-published fourth edition of Phil Meggs's History of Graphic Design. And there it was, on page 476, a reproduction of Willi Kunz's abstract letterpress exploration from 1975. I recognized it immediately as something I had seen in my design school days. More recently, it was reproduced in Kunz's Typography: Macro- and Microaesthetics, published just two years ago, a copy of which I own.

Did I think of it consciously when I designed my poster? No, my excuse was the same as Kaavya Viswanathan's: I saw something, stored it in my memory, forgot where it came from, and pulled it out later — much later — when I needed it. Unlike some plagiarists, I didn't make changes to cover my tracks. (At various points, Viswanathan appears to have changed names like "Cinnabon" to "Mrs. Fields" and "Human Evolution" to "Psych," as one professor at Harvard observed, "in the hope of making the result less easily googleable.") My sin is more like that of George Harrison, who was successfully sued for cribbing his song "My Sweet Lord" from an earlier hit by the Chiffons, "He's So Fine." Just like me, Harrison claimed — more credibly than Viswanathan — that any similarities between his work and another's were unintended and unconscious. Nonetheless, the judge's ruling against him was unequivocal: "His subconscious knew it already had worked in a song his conscious did not remember... That is, under the law, infringement of copyright, and is no less so even though subconsciously accomplished."

I find all of this rather scary. I don't claim to have a photographic memory, but my mind is stuffed full of graphic design, graphic design done by other people. How can I be sure that any idea that comes out of that same mind is absolutely my own? Writing in Slate, Joshua Foer reports that after Helen Keller was accused of plagiarism, she was virtually paralyzed. "I have ever since been tortured by the fear that what I write is not my own," said Keller. "For a long time, when I wrote a letter, even to my mother, I was seized with a sudden feeling, and I would spell the sentences over and over, to make sure that I had not read them in a book." The challenge is even more pronounced in design, where we manipulate more generalized visual forms rather than specific sequences of words.

In the end, accusations of plagiarism are notoriously subjective, and some people who have seen my piece and Kunz's side by side have said they're quite different. You can judge for yourself. All I know for certain is that I felt a powerful sense of unease when I turned to page 476 in A History of Graphic Design. That alone compels me to offer Willi Kunz an apology. I just wish for both our sakes that I had a $500,000 advance to offer him as well.