When Does a Customer Turn Designer?
[image via OAC]
I want to tread carefully here, because it is not my intent to offend independent artisans, whose work I support wholeheartedly. But this issue is on my mind from time to time, and a couple of days ago I had an email exchange with a reader that brought it back into focus. Here is the gist of the story - and I don't think it's important who the players are, because the situation is generalizable:
Clyde the Cyclist approaches Alistair the Artisan, inquiring about getting a custom Bicycle Accessory made. Clyde has a very particular idea of what this accessory should be like. Alistair the Artisan says "Gee, I've never made one of those before, but sure, I'll give it a try." And he does. The Accessory comes out great, and when Clyde the Cyclist goes on a group ride, 200 of his riding buddies see it. "Hey, where did you get that neat Accessory?" Clyde the Cyclist tells them, and the cycling buddies contact Alistair the Artisan asking for the same thing. Several months later, Alistair the Artisan has a website where the Accessory is featured prominently and given a catchy name. He shoots a friendly email to Clyde. "Thanks man! That Accessory is my best seller!" Clyde the Cyclist feels taken advantage of and emails me to ask what I think.Well, I think it's a tough one. On the one hand, if a product really is based on a customer's distinct design, an argument can be made that the "moral" thing to do, would be for the artisan to ask the customer's permission to use it, and to offer some compensation for the idea. On the other hand, if the customer made no stipulations to protect their design, it can be said that the fault is with them.
While this has not happened to me in the bicycle industry, I experienced a similar incident in a different setting a few years back and have since been more careful. If I think of an idea or design as "mine," then I'll approach the artisan presenting it in that manner from the start: "I have an idea for a product. Would you like to collaborate?" This establishes the relationship as a partnership, and fosters an acknowledgement of the fact that design input has real value. But unless that approach is taken from the beginning, it is bound to be difficult to backtrack and reframe a relationship that started out as customer-artisan, into one of designer-manufacturer.
To be clear, I by no means wish to imply that anyone ordering a bespoke item is a de facto "designer." It is only natural that the customer will give a set of requirements to the artisan as part of a custom order, after which there will be an exchange of feedback. For example, should "make it kind of like this one, only in red velvet and with larger buttons" be considered design input or just standard customer feedback? I think the latter. But if the customer has a concrete and clearly expressed idea of the item beforehand, and if the idea differs substantially from the other products made by the artisan, then both parties may want to consider the intellectual property implications of that - before proceeding with the order.