A chance to redesign the Entenmann’s website turns into a case of design piracy.
When a small creative studio start-up gets a call from a local business about designing or redesigning a website there is always a sense of appreciation and excitement. There’s nothing quite like those first projects. It’s a perfect concoction of disbelief, shock,and sheer panic.
Next, when your studio finally starts to get larger clients something with statewide or regional clout , it’s validation that a process is working and that your creative team is doing at least something right. For a handful of companies this is the make it or break it point, for others it’s a death sentence.
In the moment your studio gains the attention of national clients, well that’s a whole new level. It’s the epitome of making it to the big league and the feeling that you share as a team is unmatched. From my experience, you can actually hear the sweet harmonious sounds of synchronicity between the usual rivalry of the sales team vs the creatives.
This is the point where FireThread Studios, the company I was working for at the time which was around 2007-2008 roughly. We had just cut our teeth over the past few years collecting a handful of local clients and had just broken into the national market with 3 major accounts. FireThread Studios was not only on the map but we had accomplished a level of success in 2 years that would have been taken most others 4 to 5.
During this period of momentum I was promptly called into the owner of the company’s office. Ryan proceeded to inform me that something big just happened. An event that could be the genesis for the next phase of the company. He went on to tell me that Entenmann’s “the donuts and cookie company” just called and they are looking to redesign their aging website and they want FireThread to make an offer. At this moment we just stared at each other and I’m positive that we ran about 214 scenarios through our heads each in a span of 5 seconds of silence.
Over the next week the entire staff scrambled. We crunched numbers, sketched designs, and realized the magnitude of what this client would mean. It was a tremendous effort and after rehashing every little detail and over analyzing the mundane we finally produced what we felt was worthy.
Well, low and behold weeks slipped by with no reply. No follow up response, nothing if my memory serves me correctly. The empty echo of disappointment resonated in my head for weeks. But honestly, it went away. I had no time for inflection.
Several months later I was at my desk in my studio when my coworker came to me with a wide eyed expression mirroring his equally opened mouth. “They stole our freaking design” I paused for a second and knew exactly what he was implying. Entenmann’s took our design mockup and implemented it with another web design company, copied it internally, or freelanced it out. Nevertheless, it’s our design, verbatim in every way.
Of course the “interloper” design team changed some of the elements and re-positioned some of the modules but 95% of the treatment and design was directly lifted. We as a company had just experienced our first design theft. Not by a local car dealer desperate for a boost in sales,not by the regional hearing aid store trying to outsell the competition. We got burned by a national company.
Unfortunately, due to undisclosed reasons the owner did not pursue legal action. I personally thought that we had an open and shut case as there was a direct trail of digital proof to tether a strong argument for intellectual property theft or some other legal action. I suppose in hindsight abandoning the street level vigilante justice that I wanted to dispense was probably good advice albeit not as satisfying.
I learned from this experience that mockups and prototypes actually hurt your business more than bolster it. The exception to this would be for companies or freelancers that are just staring into the dawn of their careers. It’s hard to prove yourself without a creative history understandably so.
I say if you have at the least several clients and can prove a process of success then that is all any reputable company should ask for. I recommend you focus on showcasing how you accomplished success with your satisfied clients and bridge that with how you can implement that to your potential client.
So with that being said, it has been several years since we sent that proposal with our mockups to Entenmann’s. FireThread Studios is unfortunately no longer in existence. Even to this day if you look at the design I posted to this page and compare it to the existing Entenmann’s site you can see the influence we had even after all this time.
I can’t help but think what could have transpired from actually winning this job and being able to parlay the buzz this would have generated. Regardless, I hope it provides a little insight into how important it is to protect your work.
Update: While many years have passed since the event you can see hints of the design they lifted being implemented in the current layout http://www.entenmanns.com/
Additional design / website development credit to Paul Hester, Ryan Menzer, and Chris Andersen – some of the most talented co-workers I have ever worked with.