A poster for Spike Lee’s latest movie may be a ripoff. But it’s not the first time he’s faced accusations of unlawful design “appropriation.” Eighteen years ago, Saul Bass himself was pointing the finger.
First, the latest incident. It began when an ad agency hired L.A.-based freelancer Juan Luis Garcia, whose poster design credits include The Great Gatsby, to create one-sheet comps for Lee’s revenge flick Oldboy.
Garcia recently posted his tale on his site in the form of an open letter to Lee. He claims the agency promised him very little compensation for the initial go-around, but more if they picked up any of his concepts. They did choose one but made “an insultingly low offer,” which they refused to negotiate.
When he declined, “They told me I didn’t want to mess with Spike Lee, that I would never work again, that I was a despicable human, that they wish they never met me, and that they were going to sue my ass to oblivion.” With no signed contracts or work-for-hire agreements, he was paid nothing.
Three of Garcia’s mock-ups, including the one they’d chosen, were subsequently posted to Lee’s social media. Lee’s copyright had been added. No credit was given to Garcia. Months later, an official Oldboy poster was released. It bore an unmistakable resemblance to their first choice. Rather than threatening a lawsuit, Garcia’s blog post requested Lee to investigate the issue.
Rather than directly responding to Garcia, Lee, who may have plausible deniability on his side, tweeted that he never heard of him. And it’s safe to assume Lee also wishes he never meets him.
Then there was Lee’s 1995 inner-city drama Clockers poster. It was obviously derived from Saul Bass’s iconic graphic for Otto Preminger’s 1959 Anatomy of a Murder. The black, disjointed, silhouetted body is practically identical.
Sometimes Bass-like movie graphics may be something else as well. Ignition Print’s 2009 poster for Precious, about a Harlem teen who’s been raped by her father, may have less to do with Anatomy of a Murder than with Lanny Sommese’s earlier, 1987 PSA poster on the same subject. And sometimes that something else is just laziness. And disingenuousness: the designer, Art Sims, claimed homage.
But Bass saw theft. He went on to say: “I’m also puzzled. Do these people have such paucity of imagination—and the chutzpah—that they would do this and think it would remain undetected?” He threatened to sue, but died the following year. And today the incident has mostly been forgotten.
And Garcia’s situation is currently unresolved.
As for Oldboy, it opened November 27th. And for what it’s worth, it was a critical and box office bomb.
With anecdotes, illustrations, and historical examples, Design Disasters will inspire students, teachers, and professional designers alike to go against their instincts and embrace and even enjoy every design misstep. Design Disasters proves fear of failure–and failure itself–can be the most compelling part of the creative process.