business advice | Feb 20, 2024 |
Another designer is taking credit for my work in a national magazine. What recourse do I have?

Dear Sean,

I am a successful designer who has had the good fortune to work with primarily amazing clients and has been published more than a few times in national shelter magazines. I recently was let go from a project after working on it for almost two years—my client went through a rough patch personally and found it too painful to continue the work. Though disappointed, I understood her decision and thought that was that. However, she hired a new designer to finish the project, which is now featured in a national publication that knew I had worked on it previously. More than half of the decor in the published images is what I designed and sourced for her, but nobody is willing to give me any credit—not the magazine, the client or even the second designer. I am not a vindictive person, but I feel I must do something, because this feels incredibly unfair to me. As with all designers, a great project is what gets us the next great project. What should I do?

At a Loss

Dear At a Loss,

Before I provide my thoughts, a huge caveat: While I am a lawyer, I do not practice, and nothing I say should be considered legal advice. (BOH has amazing legal resources for you to consult; if anything I write about today inspires you to reach out for legal advice, I highly recommend you contact any of them.)

This one is very stirring for me. At heart, designers are paid to do two things: create a design and then execute said design. The designer owns the idea, and the client gets to use its manifestation when it is finished and paid for. Unpack the last sentence: If the designer does not get to finish, or is not paid for creating and executing the design, the client does not get to use it. Intellectual property is the foundation of our economic system in the United States (and most of the world, for that matter). If you are brilliant enough to create a magical idea, product or system, you alone get to reap the rewards of that creation. Only when you specifically give up that right do you not benefit from such creation. There is a ton of nuance to all of the above (which is why you might want to see a lawyer), but the essence is that the spirit of creation is to be honored.

Creation is the bedrock of design and art. Of course, the power of a designer’s intellectual property rights should be spelled out in every designer’s agreement. It is literally the first thing I discuss with my clients, as everything they do with their clients revolves around a mutual understanding of intellectual property rights. Specifically, I firmly believe in the power of intention. If a designer creates a design that a client wants, then they get to execute that design on their terms (the equivalent of an artist signing a painting). However, if at any point before the project is finished, a client decides they do not want the design, not a problem—the designer gets to take their design and leave, and the client has no further right to use any of those ideas (unless the client pays the designer to release them).

The creation and implementation of design are inextricably linked, meaning that for all intents and purposes, one does not exist without the other. If a client did not pay the designer in full for both parts of the process, they do not get to use either. Even if a client paid for part of a project to be created and executed (the first floor of a house, say), if they fire a designer before the job is complete, they must either rearrange the room to look nothing like the original design, or pay for the right to continue to use the incomplete idea and execution without the designer’s continued input (and presumably with a negotiated nondisclosure and nondisparagement agreement in place).

Which brings me to your situation. Shame on everybody involved here. The publication should absolutely know better than to feature a designer who did not fully undertake the project. There are many, many designers with fantastic work done solely by them who deserve to be featured—how dare they not credit a designer with work featured in their magazine?

And the designer? It is not too strong of a statement for me to say that they should be considered a pariah in the industry for stealing another designer’s work and calling it their own. Whether they are exposed legally is a question for a lawyer, but in the court of public opinion, they are beyond guilty. We all stand on the shoulders of giants. At the very least, they ought to give the giant (that’s you) their due. That is the thing about integrity: It only matters when it is hard, and when you lose your way, you might never find your way back. Right now, this designer has gone beyond losing their way.

Last, the client. Perhaps she believes herself above having to recognize an artist for the work they do on her behalf. And maybe the contract she signed is not as it should’ve been. So what? She is stealing and needs to be held accountable.

Yes, sometimes we should just turn the other cheek and move on. This is not one of those times. If you believe in the power of what you do and the responsibility to honor that power, allow a lawyer to help you protect your reputation, your work and your unwillingness to be silenced. If all that is accomplished is putting the industry on notice that stealing designs will never be OK, it will be money more than well spent.


Sean Low is the go-to business coach for interior designers. His clients have included Nate Berkus, Sawyer Berson, Vicente Wolf, Barry Dixon, Kevin Isbell and McGrath II. Low earned his law degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and as founder-president of The Business of Being Creative, he has long consulted for design businesses. In his Business Advice column for BOH, he answers designers’ most pressing questions. Have a dilemma? Send us an email—and don’t worry, we can keep your details anonymous.

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