Poor derivative. A word just rife with negative connotations. Financial derivatives have most recently been the rage and the cause of rage. But designers also cringe when they hear the term derivative applied to their designs. When someone says your work is derivative they aren't just making an observation, they're making an accusation. At best they mean you're unoriginal, at worst you're stealing. You might as well be taking money out of grandma's purse like the Wall Street tycoons, you simple-minded, lazy, good-for-nothing prima donna designer.
Harsh. But let's think about the idea of derivation, what it can accomplish, how it can be effective and why it's what everyone uses in the end. In a world of symbols and media there is a lot to take in. Part of how we do that is to instantly sort things, often visually, into categories like we do our laundry (if we were to actually sort our laundry which is another discussion). This is what jelly jars look like, that is what ketchup bottles look like we instantly say to ourselves. But given our amazing brains we can do this in super fine-grained detail as well as qualitative detail. This is what a label for something expensive looks like. That is what a label for something of quality looks like. This is what something cheap but passable looks like. It's all quite amazing really. It's this way of processing things that causes us to use derivation in design.
Occasionally you can introduce something out of the ordinary into a particular realm and people will love it, and it will be iconic and remembered by all. This is generally the exception that proves the rule. Success in a design is most often derived from derivation. You find what somebody already recognizes as true, something they already know and change it to something new yet familiar.
There is a fine line between derivation and laziness/stealing. I often hurl myself over the line into the nether regions of abject laziness, though try to keep from stealing. It's not a pretty scene. But as Picasso said, "Good artists borrow, great artists steal." The real dilemma for designers isn't some sort of moral quandary in terms of originality. That's for critics and lawyers to decide. The dilemma facing designers is whether or not using derivation makes design seem like a profession of style rather than substance. IS it all just window dressing.
Well, if judged simply by the ephemera and things we create, yes. But design isn't only about the finished product. It's about the motives behind it, it's about the interaction it has with the world, it's about knowing what clients want to say, it's about ideas and it's about communicating. After all of that it's about what it looks like. And sometimes it needs to look similar to something else. In short, the process is begging for information, borrowing from what we know, then stealing when necessary. if that's a crime, then I plead guilty. Take me off to designer jail, which I imagine is furnished with Barcelona chairs, George Nelson benches and lots of glass. It could be worse.