Overused Designs: Avoid Them or Embrace Them?

Overused designs can be kind of like exhausted memes, or even fanart at a convention – been there, seen that.

But here’s the thing about overused designs – they can also sell.

I talked to a few of our artists and product team members, and while the product team members told me about designs that were way overused, artists said that while that’s true, those same designs can bring in some serious money. Sure, there are a ton of “Keep Calm and [INSERT ORIGINAL TWIST HERE]” and “Joy Division” designs and spoofs…but that’s not necessarily a bad thing if done right.

So here are some pros and cons of using designs that are, well, overused.

PRO – as mentioned, they sell

These designs are overused for a reason: they’re popular. If they weren’t, there would be no point in so many artists using them. They come from a recognizable design that people dig, and when people see a new version of that design? They want it.

CON – it gets a little old

Design trends that do CRAZY well tend to burn super hot, but also burn super fast. It’s like a really good song that everyone loves – people go crazy over it, until it gets overplayed on the radio. Then nobody can stand listening to it anymore.

PRO – it’s a safe way to get some traction for your designs and shop

It can be hard to get your original work noticed. Much like with fanart, it’s easier to get your style and art noticed when it’s attached to an already well-known franchise that people recognize. When you apply your style, humor, original twist, etc. onto an existing, familiar design, it’s easier to draw people to it (no pun intended). The familiarity of the design is your foot in the door, where your original twist on it is what sets you apart and makes your design worth purchasing.

CON – can be seen as kind of a sellout or easy money-grab

I mean, yeah. I know that whenever I see designs in bigger shops that are spins on overused designs, I immediately roll my eyes, because it just seems like an easy money-grab. But, if it’s got an original spin to it? This is way less of an issue.

The Whole Point: 

Here’s the thing – there’s no real reason NOT to jump on design trends. Whether it’s cats, geometric animals, or the Straight Outta Compton meme, they’re all good ways of using familiar designs to attract people to your shop.

Here’s the key though: be original. If you’re jumping on a trend that’s already massively popular, what’s going to make it original is putting a spin on it that no one else has, and that doesn’t look like you just half-assed it to get a quick design that will sell fast.

The fun part of seeing overused designs persist is seeing clever new incarnations of them. Making it original, plus having your own designs in your shop alongside it might help to get your designs well-noticed, while not selling out for the sake of an easy-selling design.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I gonna put on my North-Face-logo-that’s-modified-to-say-something-clever tee. I’m a sucker for those.

We’re an artist community built on the power of helping each other succeed — if you’re reading this and have tips of your own to share, please do so in the comments! Thank you!

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12 responses to Overused Designs: Avoid Them or Embrace Them?

  1. Tal says:

    When does fan art or reusing popular themes become intellectual property theft? Serious question. 🙂

    • Allie says:

      I believe the US (unsure for Canada, which is sad because I live there) has a Parody law that allows art and design that is obviously a PARODY of the original idea. I read this somewhere on Threadless over the years so perhaps it’s still in a FAQ or Blog section.

    • Lance Sells says:

      This is a really tricky question and doesn’t really have a one-size-fits-all answer. It would all depending on the content of the art/designs and also depend on whether the ip holder is agressive or not.

      This is a grey area that covers books, movies, etc and has spawned many lawsuits over the years.

      I would say trust your gut! 🙂

  2. Kate says:

    I believe that short slogans and ideas are not copyright protected – but art is – and that’s a gray area.

    • In fact, slogans are protected. Slogans are “brands”. Physical shapes, typography, names, slogans, icons and the combination of all of them can be trademarks.

      • Kate says:

        If they are trademarked, yes – but that’s an active process, not a default situation.

  3. Laura Graves says:

    I always worry about doing super trendy stuff, this helps me feel a little less apprehensive about trying some!

  4. Melissa Lee says:

    Thanks for the advice. I’ve wondered about this myself and you bring up some good points. 🙂

  5. Mr Rocks says:

    I’d prefer a world where Threadless artists were original and leading the trend curve, not trying to emulate it. Sure, there’s 1001+ versions of the “Keep Calm and [INSERT ORIGINAL TWIST HERE]”, but for me the original was Olly Moss’s “Now Panic and Freak Out.”
    I agree with what you are saying above, but it would be a better world if we encouraged originality, IMHO.

    • Kit says:

      I actually have the wallet of “Now Panic and Freak Out” because it made me actually, literally, laugh out loud when I saw the design. (Unfortunately I’m looking for a new, non-Threadless wallet as this one, while awesome looking, isn’t super practical.)

      I’m with the article author – if you can come up with a really, truly original spin, go for it! “Now Panic and Freak Out” would have been funny whether I’d seen 1 or 1001 versions of “Keep Calm and” pieces. But if you don’t have a really rad idea that you’re excited to put out there… don’t put it out there.

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