Originality in design is a thorny subject. While direct, intentional rip-offs are rightly condemned by the international creative community – as well as falling foul of trademark law, of course – it's not always that clear cut.
As Oscar Wilde reportedly once said, tongue firmly in cheek: “Talent borrows, genius steals." But regardless of whether you steal deliberately, unless your logo design is particularly unusual, the chances are that someone, somewhere will have had a similar basic idea. This is especially true when it comes to simple shapes, monograms, and visual metaphors.
The skill in creating an original logo design comes in finding that differentiator – from a simple but clever flourish, to building a rich brand world in which the logo is just one small part. The other key consideration is whether the similar logos occupy the same sector – W+K's Formula 1 logo famously fell foul of compression tights manufacturer 3M in 2018 because F1 also produces clothing, and the logos (above) were too similar to ignore.
Read on to discover eight more pairs of logos that bear striking similarities to each other... so much so that in some cases, lawyers got involved.
01. Airbnb vs Azuma Drive-In
When DesignStudio announced its new Bélo symbol for Airbnb in 2014, a symbol of "coming together" and "belonging anywhere", the internet went wild – comparing it to everything from genitalia to Peter Griffin's chin.
But it also attracted comparisons with other logos, from Habitat to Monocle magazine and, as Erik Spiekermann pointed out on Twitter at the time, lesser-known brands Automation Anywhere (which has since rebranded) and Network.
Perhaps there’s something in the water: @Airbnb @n3tworkco pic.twitter.com/0ql3gWmyLn17 July 2014
But look even further back, and you'll find an even more remarkably similar symbol employed by a Japanese drive-in called Azuma, designed in 1975. Did DesignStudio rip off Azuma? We seriously doubt it – the symbol, drawn with a single flowing line, is just too satisfyingly simple not to have been independently created before.
02. National Film Board vs Virtual Global Taskforce
When it comes to visual metaphors, however smart, there's always a chance someone else will have thought of it – albeit with a different meaning in mind.
A giant eye, combined with a stick figure so that the pupil doubles as the head, formed the National Film Board of Canada's distinctive 1969 logo. Known as 'Man Seeing', it was intended to symbolise a vision of humanity – and has since been reworked to crop in more tightly for its modern-day logo.
Meanwhile, Virtual Global Taskforce – an organisation that tackles online sexual abuse of children – somehow arrived at a remarkably similar visual representation for its rather different line of business, depicting an all-seeing eye roaming the internet and watching over children. Coincidence? Well, yes. It seems so.
03. Starbucks vs Starpreya
Next we come to a David vs Goliath-style clash of similar logos within the same sector: Seattle-born, global coffee giant Starbucks, and Elpreya, a relatively tiny South Korean company that sells coffee under the brand Starpreya – a name derived from the Norse goddess Freja.
Elpreya began trading in 1999, the same year Starbucks opened its first South Korean store. Both brands featured the brand name wrapped around a green circle, and a female character in the centre, white on a black background. And more crucially, they both sold coffee.
Starbucks claimed copyright infringement, but the Korean Intellectual Property Tribunal disagreed, arguing that the marks were too dissimilar to be confused. The Tribunal's degree of impartiality is another question – but the underdog won this time. In 2011, with Lippincott's help, Starbucks later ditched its green circle and made the mermaid an even more distinctive, ownable brand asset.
04. Ubuntu vs Human Rights First
Rather like the eye with legs in our second example, the remarkable similarity between these logos for dramatically different businesses can surely be put down to the universal nature of some visual metaphors.
Ubuntu is an open-source software operating system, while Human Rights Foundation (hrf) does as the name suggests. Their common ground is communities working together towards a shared goal, and the simple graphic representation of a circle of people linking hands expresses that equally well in both sectors.
05. Gucci vs Chanel
Monograms are common in the world of fashion logos, so it's no surprise that two big-hitting high-fashion brands have found some common ground when it comes to interlocking similarly shaped characters together.
The fact that Gucci's two 'G's and Chanel's two 'C's are both based on a geometric typeface doesn't help, as you essentially end up with overlapping circles at the core of the logo. But there are notable differences: the Gs face inwards, while the Cs are back to back. Gucci employs a thinner line weight, and the logomark is also used smaller relative to the wordmark than Chanel.
Gucci has had bigger concerns than Chanel in recent years, however: its nine-year legal battle with Guess over its own interpretation of interlocking Gs (in this case, four rather than two), as well as other alleged design imitations, finally came to an end in 2018 with an undisclosed agreement.
06. Beats by Dre vs Stadt Brühl
We'll be brief with this one. If common ground is likely to be found with monogram logos, when a business uses a single letter to represent itself it is inevitable that there'll be a coincidentally similar logo to be found in another sector.
Such is the case with the logo for Beats by Dre, which fits a lowercase 'b' in the Bauhaus typeface inside a circle, to resemble headphones. Is it strikingly similar to Anton Stankowski's 1971 identity for the city of Stadt Brühl? Well, yes, but it seems like an unlikely source of inspiration to say the least.
07. Sun Microsystems vs Columbia Sportswear
Designed by computer science professor Vaughan Pratt in the 1980s, the Sun Microsystems logo is a 'rotationally symmetrical chain ambigram' – which in layman's terms means it reads 'sun' whichever way you rotate it.
On a brutally simple level, if you screw up your eyes and ignore that all-important graphic flourish, Columbia Sportswear's logomark is certainly similar. It's formed from interlocking shapes with rounded ends, rotated at the same angle, and is usually locked up with the wordmark on the left-hand-side, at the same scale.
Columbia's stylised interlocking shapes symbolise a textile weave pattern, but the logo is missing the smart twist that takes Sun's logo to the next level. That twist also ensured the Sun logo stood the test of time until the company's 2010 acquisition by Oracle.
08. PayPal vs Pandora
We finish with another battle between similar logos that ended up getting the lawyers involved – and proves that the universal approach of using a single letter to represent your brand isn't necessarily safe territory after all, especially if there is more than one similarity to your logo and another brand's.
When music-streaming service Pandora unveiled its logo in 2016, complete with a filled-in counter within its cyan-coloured letter 'P', PayPal wasn't happy. Its two overlapping blue Ps, both sporting filled-in counters, certainly had some striking similarities – particularly when seen small as an app icon.
Indeed, as part of its 2017 court case, PayPal submitted over 100 pages worth of social media posts from users who were confused between the two apps. A settlement was agreed, and three months later a new, jazzy, multi-coloured Pandora logo was rolled out – the same outline shape with a filled-in counter, but decorated with wavy lines that added purple, red and orange to the original blue.