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Plagiarism in Design

Why Should I read this?

The Art Institutes' primary goal is to prepare you and your work in your desired field for graduation, and this means creating a portfolio of work that will represent you- not only your skills, but also your work ethic, professionalism, and creative integrity. "Borrowed" images, in part or whole, can sometimes fly under the radar in school, but could seriously jeopardize a career if discovered in a professional atmosphere. Bottom line? It is crucial that you understand what plagiarism is so you can avoid it at all costs.
As stated in The Art Institute of Pittsburgh- Online Division Plagiarism Policy, "Plagiarism is a serious academic offense. Students should be aware that The Art Institute of Pittsburgh - Online Division reserves the right to suspend or terminate any student who copies or otherwise plagiarizes the artwork or assignments/projects of other students or professionals, or who otherwise displays conduct detrimental to his or her own academic progress or ultimate success in the field for which he or she is being educated."

What is Plagiarism in the visual arts?
As our policy states, plagiarism includes "copying an image or portions of an image from the Internet or from classroom resources without permission or proper acknowledgment." Of course, plagiarism also includes copying, in part or whole, copyrighted images or work that belongs to another artist, copyrighted or not. We welcome inspiration from other works, but it is important to create our own work "from scratch."
In the fine art world in which work is created for sale in a gallery and is intended to be criticized conceptually, it is more common to see items "borrowed" from other sources. This is called appropriation. Think collages, or famous artist Andy Warhol's painting of Cowbell's soup cans. There continues to be a debate in fine art about what is appropriate to borrow, and how things should be used. In the design world, the terms are more cut and dry, because designs are used for financial gain on the part of political entities (companies, corporations) not just individuals (an artist selling a painting). Images are used to advertise, promote, and sell, and with that, "appropriation" and "borrowed material" becomes plagiarism and copyright infringement, very real and legally devastating issues.

Where is the line between inspiration and plagiarism?
Graphic designer Jacob Cass brings up some interesting points in his article "Graphic Design Rips Offs or Inspiration?" (

These are some CD covers, with the originals on the left:

I'm sure the artists would love to say that their work is an homage to a previous artist or design, or simply say the work was inspired by something and the change in details makes the work different enough to stand on its own. As artists, we're inspired by things we see every day, but in these cases, we can see similarities down to the slightest details, such as exact colors, fonts, and compositions.

So, what are some ways to avoid plagiarism in design?

Research your topic.
It is important to have some sense of what's already "out there" when starting a new design. Research serves two important purposes- you can make sure your ideas aren't too close to something that already exists, and you can also gather many sources of inspiration. Being inspired by only one image can be dangerous because you may copy certain elements without realizing it. When you have a range of images to look at, you may be inspired by a font color on one image, placement on another, etc. Don't be afraid to veer away from your theme, either! Designing an invitation? Try checking out concert or movie posters for fresh ideas.

Understand copyright.
Copyrighted material is protected by law because the owner/creator has filed paperwork with the US Copyright Office. You might be able to grab an image of a bird off the internet, manipulate it in your design program, and use it in a design without anyone batting an eye. (Although it is STILL never a good idea to use anything that doesn't belong to you!!!) On the other hand, if you used the bird that appears on every bar of Dove soap, you'd most certainly run into trouble.... and that could mean the expensive legal kind! Be safe, and create fictional works for your portfolio. Movie and video game names or subject matter, characters, product advertisements, and events should all be fictional in your designs. For more information on copyright, you can reference

Use your own photographs and drawings.
You are your own best source! You can manipulate your photographs and drawings in Photoshop and Illustrator to turn them into a digital format that will be easy to play with in terms of color and graphics. Here are a few ways to manipulate images:

The image to the far left is the original image (taken by me), the middle image uses a Photoshop Filter (Posterize) and the final image is cropped and uses an additional Photoshop filter (Dry Brush).

If you're really familiar with your design software, it is much easier to use the tools available to manipulate images and shapes beyond recognition. You can stretch, liquify, and layer things so they no longer resemble the original source. As you become more comfortable with design programs, it becomes easier to use borrowed images as a base for a design. At this point, take the time to learn about all of the design tools available to you, and keep the rule of thumb- if you can recognize the original image in your work, it's still too close!

Save your work.
This is the same concept as "showing your work" in math class. Save all original design files with a psd extension for Photoshop and ai extension for Illustrator. Don't flatten your layers! Save all original images- inspirational images, photos, drawings, etc- in a file with your work. Keeping all original files is the best backup should any of your work's originality be questioned.

Ask questions.
You're in school to learn all of this- you're not expected to understand everything! If you think you're flirting with the line between inspiration and plagiarism, reach out to your instructor for help. Send visual documentation along with a description of your ideas and any questions you may have, and we'll help guide you in the right direction.