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Design and Counterfeiting

April 2013

Design is usually concieved of as a highbrow pursuit, associated with buildings and furniture, men in designer glasses, women in head-to-toe black, walls made of glass; the whole realm of rare and precious objects and those who obsess over them. Which is also to say, a certain social world where mere material consumption is not in itself a mark of status - a world where the consumption is elevated through refinement, and the development of aesthetic taste is everything. Given the rarefied air that “design” itself invokes, it’s no surprise that the underbelly of design is little noted and its continuity with its shadow-self is seldom observed. Design’s secret sibling is counterfeiting.

Outside the world of theory, the day-to-day grind of a designer depends on close observation and imitation. The designer is an artist who must produce on demand and whose creative authority is always limited. The designer values originality, yearns to be free like the fine artist. But the designer-as-auteur is rare. The true author of a product is usually not the designer but the company or person who has put up the money and come up with the general idea: the client.

The designer never swears to a code of ethics, though perhaps they should. The designer must in a certain way take responsibility for what they put into the world, but as a practical matter this is often limited to the work they take on, less than the specifics of what they produce.

There are only three outcomes to a client’s request: obey, find a compromise, or quit. And clients’ requests are very often commands to follow existing examples fairly closely. For this reason, and also owing to the plain existence of best practices, and finally to their own need to find inspirational material to base their work on, a designer often steals techniques and compositions shamelessly. The work produced is a pastiche with some flavor of its own but with plenty remaining from the originating template.

The designer strives to innovate within constraints. But when those constraints have contracted from a narrow space to a distinct mold, every one of them knows how much they’ve acted with the spirit of the counterfeiter.


Allow me to illustrate with a caricature:

A representative from a clothing chain comes into the office of a graphic designer.

“Our competitors have an ad campaign branding themselves as hip and contemporary,” they say, “and we know that their appeal is stronger among 18 - 30 year olds.”

“What do you have in mind,” says the designer.

And the client throws a folder on the desk, with pictures documenting their competitors’ approach.

“We’re going for something more like this.”


Trends in furniture or architecture, in advertising and product design, become trends for a reason. Competing brands steal each others’ ideas, and the designer is contracted simply to execute this intention. And what is the starting point? Studying the inspirational material, by dissecting it, reverse-engineering it.

This careful study is akin to that done by the counterfeiter. An artifact—a piece of currency, a check, a set of bank records, a certificate of birth or death, a license, a passport, a famous work of art, a painting or a print, a line of jackets or shoes—is minutely observed, carefully deconstructed. Broken down into pieces as small as possible.


Here in Mexico, where I currently am living, I constantly encounter counterfeit products—from faux Ray Bans sporting the corporate logo to no-logo products that simply emulate familiar designs that would sell for a dozen, even a hundred times more, retail, in the United States. I often wonder about the origins of these products. How do the counterfeiters/designers who came up with them think of themselves?

Leaving aside the complexities of the global supply chain for a moment, I want to try on the idea that these creators of bootleg merchandise might take more pride in their work than you might imagine. These copyright outlaws are making modern styles accessible to people who couldn’t otherwise afford them—styles they’ve seen glimmering, out of reach, signifying status, in the visions transmitted by the global broadcast media.


Both the designer and the counterfeiter are trying to create a certain emotional impact. One of authority, credibility, authenticity. The product must be crafted until perfection, until it hardens, it has the same glow, the same aura of certainty and belonging in the world that its inspiration demands.

The goal is to make its legitimacy as an object unquestionable. If contemplated, it should inspire a sense of mystery or awe at its completeness, the occult and unknown nature of its origins and inner workings.

The counterfeiter is striving for unoriginality rather than originality; fidelity to the original rather than some surface divergence or mark of distinction which will efface those origins.

The counterfeiter, in this respect, is more honest than the designer.