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Faculty Jason Booher apologizes to Josef Albers

Designers often walk the fine line between being inspired by and stealing design from the past. As a History of Graphic Design teacher I constantly engage students in ways to look to the past to inform their contemporary design. I come down on the side of not directly quoting or using designs whole hog from history (unless there is an openness or self-consciousness, and a very good reason). But I want to share a professional experience with this issue, in which I unfortunately did not do the right thing.

Last year I designed a jacket for Jaron Lanier’s book, You Are Not a Gadget.

[pic — Booher — You Are Not a Gadget]

It’s about the state of humanity in this moment of the digital age, and a critique of the general direction in which many programers and digital thinkers are moving us. In searching for a solution I came across a series of lithographs by Josef Albers called Graphic Tectonic, where he created concentric linear boxlike constructions. Like this one:

[pic — Ascension from Graphic Tectonic series, Josef Albers 1942]

They felt just right to me. Timeless, or even perpetually the future. They spoke to the digital world, not just in a literal circuit board abstraction, but also about how programing deals with iterations—software builds on programs before it, code upon code. There was a sense of entrapment and spatial confusion, which was also perfect for the book. And of course, they were visually striking. So I set about trying to understand the relationships involved that made it successful, and began to build my own versions that would contain the type on the jacket. I did not simply trace one of the Albers compositions in illustrator and then move it around. I started from scratch, building my own composition radiating from the type on the jacket. After a week or so of experimenting and restructuring, I showed my art director, Carol Carson and then the editor, editor in chief, publisher, and author. And it was approved.

A few weeks after the book was published (which was almost a year after I designed the jacket) an editor at Knopf received a letter from one of her authors, who also happened to be the head of the Albers foundation. He had seen the Lanier jacket and couldn’t help but notice the striking resemblance to an Albers lithograph (the one pictured below). She asked Carol about it, and Carol asked me, and I said of course those Albers constructions were exactly where I was coming from. Why hadn’t I told her? For some reason, and here is where I really messed up, it didn’t even occur to me that it was even an issue.

[pic — Shrine from Graphic Tectonic series, Josef Albers 1942]

Because I focused on the formal relationships Albers was utilizing, and then created my own visual moment without directly replicating anything, I decided this was not morally or legally offensive. One of the problems in the end, was that I didn’t go back and look at the Albers compositions once I had worked through the design to see how close I ended up coming to one of the originals. That was certainly sloppy of me. But I was re-contextualizing a flat bold pre-computer visual energy to relate to a cutting edge manifesto on the 21st-Century digital era. That was the big design move. The structural spirit of the illustration is the same, but to be honest, Albers constructions blow my design away because of additional constraints he was working with and spatial relationships he achieved. And what’s more, I was very open with anyone I showed my design in progress (with the one key exception) about the Albers constructions as the basis for the design. Although I certainly didn’t mention it when our art manager asked was working out the art credit for the jacket. I guess that makes two very important people to whom I didn’t bring up the Albers work.

I had decided the design was a new thing; it was wholly mine. From a legal standpoint, we were informed by our lawyer that there was no copyright infringement. But in the end the visual singularity held by both the illustration in my design and the Albers drawings is so directly shared, I was morally obliged to credit Albers as the creator behind the design. Above all, I should have thought or known to address the problem of permission and credit (in this case through the Albers foundation) with my art director and our art manager. Because if I had, Carol, who is deeply concerned with upholding the creative rights of graphic artists, would have set me straight. Which she did. Unfortunately it was after the first printing. We then asked for the foundation’s approval and worked out how to credit Albers. In the second printing the art credit was changed to:

Jacket design by Jason Booher, based on a 1942 lithograph by Josef Albers.

So I was wrong. And it wasn’t because I directly copied a design, nor was it because I was trying to borrow a unique formal moment on the sly and not have anyone notice. It was simply a question of not openly recognizing the creative source from which I was working, while coming uncomfortably close to visual composition of that source. Obviously crediting sources isn’t always possible with the amount of ephemera and lettering and anonymous visual compositions that we take in as designers. We often remake things unconsciously, choosing relationships after having seen them used successfully. But we should always make the effort to own up to any kind of foraging around in the creative work of our predecessors (or our peers for that matter).

Anyway, I just wanted to say, I’m sorry Mr. Albers.