Design Theft By Proxy

2009 has been a rough year at Cogeian Systems for a number of reasons.  Financially, it’s all rosy, and we’re growing.  But that growth has come in overwhelming waves and from time to time, I’ve felt as though I was losing control of certain details of our operation.

One of those details was marketing – I felt like the company’s marketing presence had gone stale (it has!), so I decided to do a new site design.  In a moment of monumental stupidity, I decided not to use my own design guys, because I wanted an outsider’s perspective, thinking it would result in something fresher than what would come about if the design were done by someone too close to the company.  I chose a young designer – a recent graduate with a good solid portfolio who seemed to see eye-to-eye with me on the importance of having the right design and what that design should be – to do the work on a freelance basis.  So, after providing a creative brief and taking a few meetings to hash ideas out, I set him to work.

I never would have predicted what happened after that.

The design he came up with was OK.  We did a few revisions and one revision in particular stood out as being different f didn’t think it was the right design for Cogeian Systems, and was prepared to start the project over, but more than that something just seemed off somehow.

Here’s the design (click for full-size):

I wasn’t feeling it, but at the same time I wasn’t sure how to articulate my concerns.  As I sometimes do, I took to browsing the CSS gallery sites (,, etc.), both because I enjoy beautiful design and because I like to be aware of the current trends in front-end design.  I was hoping that I could find something that would help me clarify the unease I was feeling about this design.  And oh brother, did I ever manage to clarify my unease – the reason something bothered me about the design was that I had seen it before on a css gallery site!

It turns out that the designer had straight-up lifted the design of a web development agency named Paramore-Redd.

Here’s Paramore-Redd’s design (click for full-size):

Just a little bit of similarity there, don’t you think?  And, just to break the irony meter, the blog post that was on the front page of Paramore-Redd’s site at the time was about design theft!

Just to make sure I wasn’t completely crazy, I decided to do an overlay of the two designs, to see exactly how much congruency there was between the two.  Here are the two designs overlaid and made semi-transparent (this was done using a screenshot of Paramore-Redd’s site at the time, in April or so):

There was a very high degree of congruency in the layouts.  The log and nav text are 100% in phase with one another, along with the headline and frames.  The main text area and the call to action were within pixels of being perfect overlaps.  He even borrowed some of the copy.  There is no way on God’s green Earth that I was going to be convinced that this was a case of independent inspiration.

Needless to say, I was not pleased.  If I had gone through with OK-ing this design, I’d have been guilty of design theft by proxy, and my designer knew it.  Web & software development is a small world and everybody knows everybody (in fact, I believe that I have at least 1 friend in common with the Paramore-Redd folks).  Imagine what it would have done to the professional credibility of my firm if I’d gone live with another’s firms’ design?  I’d have been shredded and laughed right out of business, and deservedly so.

So, I called the young designer on his transgression, and of course he protested that he had come up with this design 100% on his own, out of his own head, and that he had the developmental sketches to prove it.  I wasn’t buying it – there’s just no way that this was accidental – so I cut him loose and scuttled the project for a few months (we’re working on it again, this time with a designer who is in the family, right now).

Now, I realize that the wrongdoing was on the part of the designer, but at the same time I have to acknowledge a few mistakes.  First off, deciding NOT to use my own crew of regulars was a mistake; that business about wanting a ‘fresh perspective’ was silly.  I work with the same designers over and over, nobody has a better grasp of what Cogeian Systems is about than those guys.  Second, I hired a recent graduate.  His student portfolio was excellent, so much so that I boggled me that he’d feel the need to resort to design theft, but he was green, so so very green.  I’d never hire a developer that green and not expect a disaster, but for some reason I just felt like this kid had the goods, despite what 15 years in business tells me about hiring people so green.  And third, I broke my own rule by not issuing a firm no the instant he delivered a design I was lukewarm to.  I went along for a few revisions, thinking we’d hit on something magical along the way, but the reality is, as the old saying goes, you can’t polish a turd.

It’s amazing to me that even after 15 years in the business, I still make the occasional bad decision (or three!).  Maybe it’s the universe’s way of keeping me humble.  But in this case, I came very close to design theft by proxy, and all the negative consequences that would have had for my business.

All is not lost, though.  Soon I’ll be able to reveal some UI teases from our NEW new design for