I had a terrible client a few years ago. The project ended really badly and I ended up not getting paid everything that I was owed. The client called the other day to see if I was interested in doing more work for him. He didn't mention the previous experience at all. The new project sounds awesome, but as you can imagine, I'm afraid it will just be a repeat of last time. Should I try to work for him again?
Apprehensive in Austin
My dear, dear Austin,
After putting me through many weeks of variations on an identity project, my client, a frustrated designer, finally signed off on something this week. Yet no sooner had we begun our victory dance in the studio, and he was back with second thoughts. He literally googled a description of our logo (the details of which were basically pre-determined) and found something obscure, but similar (and much less refined), which he shot back at us.
I can't help but feel like this is client entrapment. Am I overreacting — or am I on to something?
Reeling in Rotterdam
Dear Ro (may I call you that?),
You are probably overreacting because I can’t imagine why your client would want to entrap you.
But I do also think you’re on to something.
Bear in mind that logos are stolen all the time (in case you're wondering, logothief.com is doing a wonderful job of outing the criminals who do this), but even so, there's always a chance that a design solution that was arrived at organically and in response to a brief could share similar characteristics with something that already exists.
However, this doesn't mean that it was stolen and it doesn’t necessarily mean the logo can’t be used.
First, you have to look at where the other company (with the supposedly similar logo) does business. If it's in a remote part of the world and the scale of the operation suggests a geographically restricted audience, then — despite the crazy coincidence of similar visual elements — you're probably safe. A similar protocol is sometimes used when naming companies: if the businesses are different and are registered in different states, even the U.S. government agrees you can go ahead and use the name.
Given that protocol, the second question to ask is, what kind of business does the other company do? Delta Airlines and Delta Faucets both only use the word "Delta" (and the accompanying triangular symbol) in their logos, but since there's no chance of confusion given their different industries, it's not a problem.
In your case, I'd argue that the obscurity of the mysterious other company probably makes this a non-issue, but these kinds of situations have to be judged on a case-by-case basis. As a designer, you wouldn’t want to even inadvertently mimic another logo, so it's probably a good idea to do a bit of research yourself just to see what's out there before you get too far. Then, you can determine for yourself and ultimately, for your client, whether or not there is any graphic precedent to your proposed logo. In all likelihood, you'll be fine. Just stay away from swooshes.
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