On Identical Discoveries

“Snap. Identical discoveries and inventions made independently but concurrently include the evolutionary theory of species, calculus, the telephone, the telescope, photography, the planet Neptune and the Rubik Cube. The distance between originality and duplication is often minimal, particularly when the different parties are on the same train of thought.

In the 1970s NBC Television commissioned Lippencott and Margulies, an American design office, to design a new corporate symbol.’ After considerable expenditure and months of work involving behavioral scientists, market researchers, graphic designers, and God knows who else, they produced a solution, a device based on the letter N. At the same time a small radio and TV network in Nebraska came up with the same graphic solution at minimal cost and by one man.

The popular press went to town. David and Goliath, value versus cost, and all the rest of it. Of course they didn’t talk about the real issue which was one of confidence, or, more exactly, the lack of it.

The large corporation, which had a lot at stake, had to convince itself that the new design was appropriate and suitable. Or put another way, a lot of suits insecure in their individual aesthetic judgement when it came to assessing the qualities of a letter N, had to ensure that no one was going to laugh them out of office.

They wanted to cover all the options. This required the designers to produce a myriad of ideas, each rendered in a vast number of variations and permutations. Up in Nebraska the guy probably fiddled around a bit, thought one solution looked nice, slept on it, and sent it off to be registered next day. Who knows, perhaps someone at Lippencotts had come up with that particular N before the man in Nebraska?

In an out-of-court settlement NBC bought exclusive rights to the symbol. They had to pay 55,000 US dollars in cash and supply the Nebraska network 500,000 US dollars worth of television equipment. As any designer knows, there but for the grace of God…”

— (via The Art of Looking Sideways by Alan Fletcher)