Let me start with saying I really didn’t want to write this article.
But my business is in trouble. Yes, I’ve worked for world-renowned brands for the last five years: Target, Disney, Aria, PwC. My agent is fantastic, and due to my acumen and his efforts, we’ve kept afloat in spite of a pressing matter. During a partial hiatus from my job prior to and during wild life circumstances, another artist has been ripping off my work. I hesitated to speak out, hoping the problem would resolve naturally and I was afraid of being deemed overreactive. But it has not. Instead it is threatening my livelihood, reaching extremes.
My experience started a year and a half into my current line of work when a designer started reinterpreting some of my work in their own feed. Initially it wasn’t a big deal to me; Instagram was almost strictly a social platform back then, and people are welcome to practice. In 2019, this is now their full-time endeavor. They are blocked across my platforms yet continue to heavily reference my work to garner followers and fund their business. And they are doing quite well.
Two Kinds of Theft
Most of us behave like fanatics at some point in our careers, trying to generate space for ourselves in an industry. Design is full of cool people, it’s easy to do! Most artists being idolized in this manner will tolerate fans because most will find their own path, using the artist as a springboard to their own voice. Why make an unnecessary enemy who may eventually become a peer and a friend?
However, this is not what happened to me. I politely and kindly approached this artist in 2014 after several people informed me this person acquired an agent. While playing with many styles, the artist was primarily presenting work that looked like mine. It is unethical to enter a peer’s market while utilizing their work as obvious source material. Whether intentional or not, this is a move to steal. This was a small problem then, but I was no stranger to writing these emails, unfortunately. Most artists with a platform are not. This person told me I didn’t own food typography — correct, but this work was positioned after mine — and I reasoned that we could come to an arrangement. This person could stay in florals and plants, as some of the work suggested, and I would stay in my lane.
I ended with:
They immediately took to twitter to write a comprehensive history of food typography, omitting me, of course. Disappointed but unsurprised, I waited, hoping this problem would solve itself, that she might grow into a more natural direction, leaving me to my work.
This has not happened. Again, my business has been threatened.
As mentioned in the prior article on my copying philosophy, while I can’t claim a 1:1 theft, the replication is too marked and too consistent over several years to be accidental. Aside from the interview below in 2015, I’ve never been publicly cited as an influence:
I wasn’t completely silent this entire time. I have privately confronted this person twice since our first interaction: once privately through a mediating party, and once in an comment on a social post that spawned a month’s worth of emails between us. I have tried to problem-solve a way for us to coexist peaceably. She is disinterested. Only privately has the admission of my work starting her career been made:
During this email exchange, I noted that despite my social channel blocks they’ve continued to reference my work. Why not be open about how close the work was becoming if they were far removed from me, the source?
<Edited from the Original>
The party in question claims I’ve tried to own this entire genre. A time stamped image shows this is not the case, name redacted.
We Need Competition, But —
“Collaboration over Competition” is a popular adage right now. In gaining visibility, this person champions a banner of collaboration, not competition. While I’m very much in favor of that idea, these direct quotes of hers from our private interactions do not support this public message:
Prospective clients came to me with ideas that were directly spun off of my passion projects; they wanted to pay for my ideas, the dream! 95–100% of my work was on the mood boards, and yet they passed on me. When asked why they’d go with someone else, they replied that the cheaper option threw in additional assets at no cost. It was a steal, they said. Agreed. As this person lowballed me and heavily referenced old projects, they began taking on all jobs in-house with their spouse, a videographer. How do I know they were undercutting me? A client accidentally sent me their paperwork instead of the project brief.
When confronted, this person countered with:
I always ask my worth, this statement is projecting and further proves this person is closely watching my work. The email excerpts above coupled with this feedback is directly inciting unhealthy competition. This behavior creates winning and losing, but everybody loses.
I took exception with my mentors and colleagues that openly supported this person knowing she was piggybacking off my work. It occurred to me that many do not know the extent of the theft. Many assume we are colleagues. We are not friends, never cultivated a relationship prior to this sustained theft. We are not raising a genre together. This person does not receive work passed down from me with contractual parameters, as is common among artists working in similar styles and markets. Some parties offered “but she’s so nice” or “you two need to put this behind you and get along.” And of course, why would anyone assume the worst of a stranger or acquaintance?
The right kind of competition is very healthy and can encourage a niche’s growth, drive more demand for related work. I’ve featured some of my niche peers on my site; I respect and appreciate these people. Through this mutual respect, I’ve shared them on my platforms, helped them quote jobs. I keep a respectful distance from designers working adjacent to me because I believe in the power of my own ideas and never want to step on their toes by accidentally absorbing theirs. I would never knowingly take anything from their legacy, nor do I need to. I’ve not been shy about naming those peers, but I purposely avoid fixation or study. Healthy competition is mutually beneficial.
While some of the time stamps are dated, this is still happening. In the case of this person, they began hosting a conference and inviting high profile letterers to validate the event. There is nothing quite like seeing photos in your feed of someone who has stolen from you for years sitting on a panel about pricing and fair practice with peers who’ve come to you for advice regarding others ripping off their projects.
This person has consistently used my hashtags and brand language when convenient for them. Now that they have a pedestal, this person is attempting to transition dimensional type, my encompassing phrase for object type, to tactile lettering, migrating my audience. They try to bury me within SEO searches of my own work when it suits them. The difference is semantics only; there is no value add or differentiation of content. This is wrong. One could argue corporations do this all the time, but I’d counter: we’re individuals. Individuals have moral compasses and bear responsibility of their decisions. People shouldn’t do this.
It is true, as the person who siphons my work justified their actions, saying, “A rising tide raises all boats.” However, commandeering a stranger’s boat and expecting them to float you is piracy.
The Dark Side of Finding a Niche
Everyone says “Find a niche, find your voice!” but nobody discusses the ramification of such a high vertical. What happens to an artist when someone does this? If a person swoops in on you like they did me, you feel it financially. This person has been full time producing dimensional type for almost three years; that’s three years of living wages out of my pocket, particularly during very vulnerable times when I relied on return for my work.
While I’d argue I’m a generalist, my audience believes I’m a specialist. My business model is self-generative; I create projects to stoke the imaginations of prospective clients. My primary function is to connect the dots between my wide range of weird skills and what I can offer clients. Most of my passion projects are me trying to prove a technique or concept, the fruits of which may or may not materialize in three months to a year and a half. Despite our instant payoff society, dimensional type is a very long game. I have to work twice as hard on developing new ideas that can’t be easily replicated and therefore don’t have time for filler.
Unlike most creatives, my work isn’t bound to the confines of color palettes in software or types of pen on paper; literally the world is my canvas. The infinite possibilities that exist in using pre-existing objects makes this lightning strike even more unlikely, especially over the course of several years of work. Similar or exact text, sourcing of similar tomatoes, flowers, and lettering styles is highly unlikely as happenstance. My work continues to inspire her production.
The Toll of Erasure
Watching someone rip your work is like looking in a fun house mirror: you see distortions of yourself, some good, some bad. You see your work reduced to the most basic, replicable version of itself that can still generate interest and money. And it’s ugly. The strength of my work is the conceptual integrity and unity built into the final image. From concept and copywriting to materials and execution, every aspect is painstakingly considered. The off-brand versions offered by this individual say things like “Yay!” “Party!” and “Yum!”
I started hiding my process. I loved sharing with people, but it began to cost me dearly. One of the first to adopt time lapses, I had to quit because someone was taking notes. I’d spend weeks working hard to experiment in between gigs, only to see it replicated weeks or months later for paying clients. Clients not only expected to pay less, but they started treating my portfolio as a trend, going so far as to hire me, then this other person as a retainer. Things change, absolutely, but this change was forced. Clients cited this person as an excuse for their behavior. For a stranger to profit off of my explorations is both infuriating and unethical.
Let’s be honest, I was also angry and sad. Angry someone would have such audacity and lack so much empathy for someone else. I come from an abuse background, and this dredged up feelings and questions about my rights to be angry. I was sad that despite supporting peers so fiercely, no one was questioning the validity of these behaviors.
I share my feelings here because this is a reality no one discusses; it makes you feel commodified, used, and forgettable.
I struggled to share other people’s work, promote their projects in the #foodtypography world because I didn’t know who I could trust to responsibly react. It’s been a hard lesson learning to celebrate the 98% who will share, give credit, build friendships, but I’ve done the work.
The Lemonade in a Sour Experience
I have been forced to grow through this experience in many ways. Ultimately, I am excited to further this conversation about IP and how we can shape future generations’ understanding of agency in a fast moving digital world.
Despite some major personal setbacks in the last couple years, I have considerably evolved my style, challenging myself to deeper exploration. Imagine evolving during a divorce, a traumatic near death experience, and the variety of challenges that follow these events. Many would give up. That is not my way. While I’ve worked hard to rise above, challenge myself, continue to press forward, this is not enough. The best thing I can do is share my story.
Through this experience I’ve become a better teacher and speaker because my focus is less on those who take and directly on those who give and give back. I am less afraid, and the difference in my platform presence is palpable. I am very interested in talking about IP, how social media is compounding this issue of theft faster than we’re evolving to solve it. We are not talking about ramifications, hoping things will change. As shown, if we do not take ownership of our work, someone else will.
This article is not to shame this person; frankly they don’t care. I cannot change them. I am tired of carrying this secret burden. I have done nothing wrong, and I want to be free to speak about this experience. More importantly, I am fighting for my livelihood I’ve used to cultivate play in myself and give others joy. If you find yourself on the other side of an interaction like this, please reconsider. This trajectory is short sighted, unethical.
If you would like to help me, if food typography and dimensional lettering have touched your life, please let people know. Say my name. Shout it. I am looking hard for good work and have many, many ideas to share with you.
I would love to discuss this situation and social media’s effects on ownership at large via podcast or publication. If you are a school or conference that wants to unpack this topic broadly and logically, I know I can help.
Thank you to the friends and colleagues whose gamut of opinions made this article possible, who collected images on my behalf, listened gracefully. All gratitude to those who encouraged me to grow through this extremely frustrating experience and pushed me to be more fair, empathetic, and just. Abundant thanks to the classes at MNSU Mankato for letting me test these theories during my residency.
Check out the first installment in The Case for Copying here.