Plagiarism has been back in the news lately. Fareed Zakaria has been suspended by CNN and Time for apparent plagiarism. Jonah Lehrer recently had to give up his post at the New Yorker, not because of plagiarism, but because he made up some quotes from Bob Dylan. However, reading more about the Lehrer story I saw that this wasn't the first time he had done something journalistically questionable. He also had to issue an apology for committing self-plagarism. Apparently in some of the articles he had written he was recycling wholesale from blog posts he had written. At first, I was confused as to why this is a problem (after all Seth Godin and other famous internet writers seem to do it all the time). The very simple concept was well explained by Julia Turner of Slate in a recent podcast. I'm paraphrasing here, but essentially the idea is if I hire you to write me an original piece of journalism and instead you lift something you created a while ago wholesale then you've ripped me off. I hired you for your original thinking. If I wanted the old piece I would have bought the rights to it.
This got me thinking about self-plagiarism in the design world. As design problems come up from project to project many of them are inevitably repeats. Right now somewhere someone is installing a lighting cove, it's not the first cove in existence. Rather it is a repeat of a cove someone else designed, or perhaps a repeat of a designer's own work. In fact, it's considered common practice to have a library of "typical" details for often used design solutions. Designers do this to save time and money, they know this solution has worked before, why reinvent the wheel unnecessarily?
But measured against the standards we have for journalists, would this pass muster? Our clients hire us for our original thinking, not to repeat details we've used elsewhere. So why don't we care if we self-plagiarize our designs? I think like many moral questions it's a matter of degree. If a writer repeats something they've said before in a single sentence or phrase no one is going to nail them for it. But if they repeat entire passages someone is going to notice and be upset.
As a lighting designer, if I pull from my library of design details to integrate something I've known was successful in the past into what is otherwise an entirely new design, I don't morally or professionally have a problem with that.
What's your take? Where's the line for self-plagiarism when it comes to design? Leave a comment or let me know on twitter.