I was skimming over an article in Communication Arts by DK Holland the other day, and in it she has a quote from Peter Arnell of The Arnell Group (perpetrators of this and this) that he "designs in a vacuum." At that point I almost did a spit-take with my Tropicana.
He was reacting to the idea that the new Pepsi Logo that his firm developed seemed to be reminiscent of the Obama logo. Evidently Arnell felt the need to make sure the work seemed original and not derivative. His way of doing that wasn't to simply say that he hadn't really thought about a connection. His response was to say something utterly stupid and idiotic. This seems harsh, but it's the only thing I can come up with. it's either comically dumb, or a lie. I don't know which would be the lesser of the two evils.
If I were to make a list of things that were "designed in a vacuum" it would be a really short list. About the only things designed in a vacuum are maybe things that were designed in outer space. To be clear, we design things to communicate with other people. These people live in the real world. The real world is a cacophonous, rambling onslaught of stimuli. Everything we do to communicate is designed in a way to either cut through or take advantage of all of the stuff happening in the real world. Ummm. This doesn't seem to be a vacuum-like process, vacuous maybe, but nothing like a vacuum.
The disconnect of this idea is disturbing. Let's say you were able to avoid all contact with the outside world, generate idea completely unrelated to anything around you, filter out anything that didn't spring out of your own magically unadulterated brain and then you designed an orange juice package. Well guess what. This thing has to now go live in a place that looks like what an orange juice factory with dysentery would leave behind. It's a mess. If you leave the idea of that mess out of your thinking, how can your new orange juice carton of the future ever hope to be seen?
Let's not kid ourselves. We all are using the scraps of observation that we have culled over time to create everything we design. This is why trends develop, why we have common visual language for categorizing things. So what if the new Pepsi logo looks like Barack Obama's logo which looks like Bank of America's logo in a circle. Big deal. Of course they do. Even if those were changed entirely they would then look just like something else. You can't defend yourself from that by saying you design in a vacuum. And you don't have to defend yourself from these similarities. You shouldn't defend yourself. Embrace the fact that these similarities are likely what give your designs strength. You arrived at them because they resonated with you. This is likely because it was playing on things that already existed in your brain. It shouldn't come as a shock that it resonates with others and reminds them of other things. That's life. Avoid it at your own peril.