On design similarities

When it comes to knit design similarities can be a sensitive issue. Over the years I’ve sat to write about it several times then stopped and paused, and saved everything in notes and drafts. Because nuance is important but it’s often lost, and I’ve wanted to make sure I get things right.

A fellow designer recently got in touch about similarities between one of my designs and theirs. They naturally felt uncomfortable, and wondered what could be done about it, if anything. I’ve assured the designer that our designs are different, and will highlight my design’s features so that the differences are more apparent.

I know this feeling all too well. It really can sting to see something similar to yours out in the wild. You’ve spent all that time developing a design, considering its proportions, doing all the calculations and maths so it can be a multi-sized pattern. It then goes through testing and editing and photography. And then you plan your release schedule and marketing and that’s a lot of investment, and not just financially.

When it happens it can be incredibly stressful and create an awful lot of extra work for everyone involved. Given that this issue has been in my thoughts again, and as I’ve been giving the blog an overhaul, I figured it was time to pull together those notes and drafts and talk through some of my thoughts and experiences in the hope that it may help other designers.

Early in my design journey there were one or two occasions when I felt really violated. One time I tried to talk about it on the blog and it turned into a sharp lesson in how not to handle things – because it was a huge coincidence, it wasn’t copied as I first assumed, and the other crafter understandably felt attacked. We worked things out and stayed in touch for a while, but I felt pretty shitty about the whole thing for a long time afterwards.

The Hats in question were my Spiral Play pieces – not a specific design as such, it was a free tutorial I published for a construction method come sculptural style. I was trying to sell the Hats I made and not only felt mighty chuffed with myself for their uniqueness and for developing such an idea, but also very protective of any additional income that could be lost as all I had were my disability benefits. This was 15 years ago and I don’t remember all the details, but I do remember how the whole situation made me feel and the lessons it taught me.

front view of the Toph Hat

rear view of the Toph Hat

side view of the Toph Hat

Toph is my best selling pattern by a long shot. But it’s also been my most problematic. Not long after it was published I discovered a digital trail that led to a corner of the online knitting world where knitters were trying to reproduce the design. There’s nothing legally wrong in this at all – if folks can reverse engineer the design then they’ve some skills, and we shouldn’t get arsey with folks who can’t afford a pattern or find that it isn’t in their language. Where it became an issue was when some of those knitters decided to publish their instructions, nearly always for free. Morally this was pretty straight forward. Legally though, it’s not so straightforward; copyright is a thing but it’s not universal. And as much as the UK and EU have design rights protection, that’s even harder to enforce in countries where no such laws exist or where attitudes about the sharing of ideas are culturally very different. The best shot I had was at having the posts and videos that used my photos removed. But it barely made a dent, the copied designs were going viral.

Eventually the digital trail led to a designer who’d seen the flurry of Hats and wanted to make their own pattern. They spent a considerable amount of time studying the photos, working out the maths and construction. Eventually they had a pattern ready to publish. Each time I got tagged in one of the posts by concerned followers, which I very much appreciated, I tried to respond and explain but eventually patience ran out because it’s exhausting and stressful. However, once this particular designer realised there was already a pattern in existence, that the various versions they’d seen were copies, they pulled their pattern. I didn’t ask them to at all, they did it of their own accord, which I wasn’t expecting and which earnt them a lot of respect. We’ve spoken several times since, very amicably, and even though the copyright infringements are still going on elsewhere – don’t get me started on all the illegal translations or the companies using my photos to promote their mass produced rip-offs – that one journey ended pretty well. This designer has used the design elements and techniques widely in other designs and it’s been really successful for them.

But that’s copying. Unfortunately it’s a conclusion we can jump to all too easily, as I did years ago.

front view of the Bubbles Hat

front view of the Half Theory Hat

side view of the Fabales Hat

Design similarities are a whole other thing. And they’re not bad.

There are some design elements, especially those seen within simple or minimalist designs, that cannot be unique. They just can’t. I’m not talking about an overall design here, I’m talking about the design elements.

What makes our designs unique is not so much the design elements themselves, or the stitch patterns, but how we use them. What will be unique is the way we’ve combined them, the mathematical structure that connects them. The spaces we leave between them, the relationship each element has with the other. Their placement and position, the proportion and scale. Our very reasons and inspirations for combining these elements to create our designs the way we do is what sets us apart.

But it still can sting when you see something that at first glance, looks so similar. I know for me that’s it’s only really been experience that’s lessened this feeling and helped me to see a different perspective.

And here’s the thing – it’s absolutely OK for similar designs to exist. People do have similar ideas all the time! You’ve only got to look at the concept of Convergent Evolution to realise that if nature can do that, so can the human brain. We respond to trends or the environment around us whether we’re aware of it or not.

What gives similar designs their value is their differences. It could be the structural or visual differences – such as proportion, placement or construction method. It will also be their gauge – yarn weight or needle sizes. It’ll be their overall shape and form, and the number of sizes a pattern includes. And it’ll very much be about how the pattern is written, the designer’s own style, how that design is supported with say, technical help online or tutorials, and how the pattern is presented.

Yes, our designs are about what they look like and how they fit. But knitting is a process, and we do it an injustice when we only focus on a few of the visual aspects.

front view of the Duality Hat

front view of the Chiral Hat

front view of the Oscillare Hat

The Lateralis collection was developed from a construction idea that I’d been exploring in my notebooks for years. My love of sideways construction is hardly a secret and I’d been exploring other ways of approaching it. I’d got this construction method sussed, worked out the maths and proportions and the impact of gauge.

Then, a designer published a free pattern using the same construction method. Their use of stitch patterns and techniques was different to how I’d worked things out, but the construction itself was the same. And I was gutted.

In my despair I was ready to abandon it all, as after all it’s an unusual concept and I really wasn’t sure whether there’d be pushback or whether the work I’d done would be recognised. The designer had taken a different approach to reach the same conclusion and I didn’t want to rain on their parade, either.

But then I sat and thought – I’ve done all this work, folks will know why I explored this, and the internet is a big place. There’s room for us all because we each have different audiences and styles and sure, they’ll overlap a bit because knitting, but we don’t all appeal to the same people.

So I figured that I would carry on, only make it more my own, make it different.

I’ve never contacted the other designer or spoken to them, or them me, though I guess they’re as aware of me as I am them. My worries were unfounded and I’ve used this construction method since, with many more plans for it.

side view of the Parallelo Hat

side view of the Equaliser Hat

side view of the Misura Hat

So… what to do when things happen?

If you know your work is being copied then whether it’s worth pursuing is up to you. The situation with Toph has gotten out of hand, but that’s in a league of its own. Apart from a few people buying the pattern on Etsy thinking it’s a finished Hat – because of all the adverts the various rip-off companies are placing around the internet – I can’t say it’s affected sales. Sure, I wouldn’t mind being paid a design fee for the rip-offs, but that was never going to happen anyway. I’m concerned about the illegal translations but all I can do is keep reporting the links and encouraging folks to buy one of the legit versions. The pattern is still as popular as ever, and folks are really good at letting other knitters know where to buy the pattern and how to credit the designer – thank you!

Yet proving copying is hard. Not just legally, either, as it comes with an emotional and financial cost too. It can get expensive quickly and how many of us can afford that?

If you can’t say for certain that something is copied then it probably isn’t. Coincidence is far more common than blatant copying. Heck, sharing PDF files is a far more common copyright infringement than reverse engineering a design and then publishing it.

So what should we do when we discover a design similarity? Well, I’ve learnt that doing nothing is the best course of action. Yup, it can sting, even after 16 years. For some folks it’ll sting less or more or not at all, and that’s OK too. But I’ve found that acting on those emotions hasn’t done me any good. In fact, it’s nearly always done more harm than good.

We can’t expect another designer to pull their design due to similarities, that’s just not how things work. We’d never see any ingenuity or innovation. There’s certainly room for cross promotion, especially if the designs are very unusual in some way or if you can build a good relationship with the other designer.

What I wouldn’t do is kick up a fuss. That rarely ends well for anyone, even for folks who have been copied. Talking about it publicly can get messy. I’ve a large platform and very loyal supporters and I wouldn’t name names or hint at an identity again as I wouldn’t want anyone to feel the weight of that pressure – I’ve learnt the hard way how quickly things can get out of hand.

If you’re a designer concerned about design similarities, my advice would be to focus on what you’ve done – you’ve designed something you love and published a pattern for it! No-one can take that feeling away from you. Focus on your business, your audience, your own integrity, your creativity. Your design will be different, even if it seems so similar, and those differences are your strengths – develop those strengths.

It does hurt, I know. Your feelings are valid, and we’re each invested in our own work. As designers, we each need to get used to design similarities and the way they make us feel.

Woolly Wormhead

Woolly Wormhead is an internationally reknowned knit designer, specialising in Hats, technique and construction. Their patterns and techniques have been used by thousands of knitters worldwide. Join The Woolly Hat Society to be the first to learn of their latest projects and special offers!

8 Comments

  1. Dianne

    Thank you, that is very well put.

    Reply
  2. Sarah

    Great discussion that shows a generosity of spirit on your part.

    I think there is a sort of phenomenon where suddenly a topic, a style, a name…whatever…becomes widely used. Look at baby names, for instance. I chose my daughter’s name because I thought it was pretty but also because I thought it was unusual without being odd or hard to pronounce. I hadn’t met any women or girls with that name. And after she was born, suddenly all I seemed to meet were little girls, about her age, with the same name. Part of that, of course, is that you start noticing that thing (name, style, whatever) more, part of it is some popular figure having the name…but I really think that there is something to very similar ideas springing up at the same time in people who have no contact with each other. A sort of synchronicity, if you will. It has happened with scientific theories, though I can’t now remember the exact instances.

    And with things like design…be it knitting or something else…people build off what came before. It isn’t surprising that, in the huge world of talented knitting designers, that two great design minds, pushing to play with a new idea, might find the same path to forge. (Do you forge a path? Well, you know what I mean!)

    Anyway, I find your hats stunning!

    Reply
    • Woolly Wormhead

      We do build off each other, and things do go in cycles, yes! And absolutely, there are infinite ways to combine stitches but also a huge spread of knitters and designers worldwide – coincidences can’t be avoided.

      I also think it’s those similarities that can push us to create something different, add a new twist, a fresh perspective.

      Reply
  3. Marlene S

    Thank you. I’m just starting my design career. Right now I kind of feel that all I’m doing is making things that are similar to other things I’ve seen that have inspired me to branch off in my own direction. Even though I know that my design is not their design, I felt like I was cheating somehow. Like getting ideas from how other people did things – even if that was just a stitch dictionary rather than a design element from another pattern – was somehow wrong. A sign that I wasn’t creative enough or good enough to figure this out on my own, specifically when I used a pattern I bought to teach me the cable decrease – and only the cable decrease – I needed to complete the cable panel I could envision in my head.

    I feel a lot better now knowing that while I should try to find my own inspiration from sources that aren’t other designers that it isn’t necessarily a bad thing, at least not right now while I’m trying to get my feet under me. I am confident that, given enough time I’ll eventually find myself coming up with ideas that may resemble other designers but weren’t inspired by them.

    I don’t know how much you read your comments here, I am sure you get an awful lot of them and I know I’m an awful small fish in a very big pond, but if you do see this, thank you from the bottom of my fairly smallish yarn stash. 🙂

    Reply
    • Woolly Wormhead

      I’m so glad it’s been helpful!

      At some point in the future, energy levels and time permitting, I’d like to write about some of things you’ve touched on, especially inspiration and being a newer designer. I’m a former Art and Design teacher and have some insight that might be helpful, especially in relation to how design is taught and how that often seems very different to the paths most of us take as knit designers.

      But as I say, at some point in the future!

      You will find your design voice and it sounds like you’re going in the right direction 🙂

      Reply
  4. Colin Andersson-Hamill

    I have been on the wrong end of accusations of plagiarism. Twice. Both publicly. One years ago and one just a couple of weeks ago. Over the same pattern.

    Mine is a sock design, that I designed, out of my head, by wondering what would happen if I did this instead of that, as seen in a very old Bavarian pattern. I loved the result. I showed it off when finished. The first time about 15 yrs ago, the 2nd time just a couple of weeks ago. The attacks I got were vicious.

    The design does look similar to a design by a famous knitter cum designer. However, there’s is lace and mine is travelling stitch pattern. On first glance they look similar.

    The second time I did not get into an argument. I said it was my own design, at the time had never seen the other design. I left it there. I was blocked by the original accuser.

    I resisted the strong urge to to my books of Bavarian charts and photograph the lace design that MAY have been used my the other designer. They look identical. I did not because I couldn’t be bothered and realised that as gay male knitter I stood no chance anyway.

    People are always willing to think the worst first.

    Your case sounds very different as far as I have understood, the other person was deliberately copying you.

    Will it stop me showing off m y work? No but it makes me nervous. Dues to a severe trauma in 2014 and several more falls needing me in. the ICU, I lost the ability to walk and kn it. I have persevered and can now knit again. Just as I used to. I will soon show them off and wait with baited breath to see if anybody starts accusing me. This design came completely from my brain, no inspiration from outside. Most importantly I can now knit again. I was devastated when I couldn’t and was told I was unlikely to get the ability back. Can’t walk but I need to walk to knit!

    Reply

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