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risky business

I was a little bit unsure of whether to write this post or not as I thought: “Is it worth it? Am I just stirring up trouble? Will it actually make a difference?” But my blog is meant to be informative, keeping everyone up to date on my latest work and things that are happening, so I decided that I should write it, as scary as it might be. I think the subject today is something that has affected a lot of people, judging by the topics discussed on Twitter anyway, so hopefully this will ring true with a lot of people, and will be helpful to anyone looking for a cake designer, or any designer for that matter.

Designs are like handwriting: it comes naturally to you, it represents you, it is unique. Other people may be able to copy it but it won’t have that same ease and flow about it. If it is yours and you find that that style feels right, you practise, develop and perfect it. Someone seeing it and copying it, in my opinion, just won’t achieve the same beauty and X factor (not the programme. Dammit, it has ruined that phrase!).

I think one of the first events that really kicked this off for me was this article, posted by Shedraws. Amazing designs, really simple, really striking and totally unique. You look at the copies and there is just no comparison. Ok, so she was copied by a mass market, low budget chain store but the principle is still there. They are copies and you can tell.

I also saw a conversation on Twitter where an iced cookie company had their images stolen from their website and placed on another website (In Mexico, I think), where they were being marketed as sold by this other company. This must be terrible, not only for the company having their images pinched, but also for any customers purchasing cookies from the rogue company. If they can’t even be bothered to make the cookies themselves to photograph, copies as they were, what on earth are the actual products going to look like? If there are even any products to buy. I couldn’t help but think that this sounded like a scam. I really hope this problem has been resolved and the other website has been shut down.

I have since heard quite a few stories, mainly from the Twitterverse and people I am in direct contact with on there, of other companies spying great designs on websites, even website designs themselves, photos posted up on that networking site and from Facebook and from nuggets of business gold that have been requested, either honestly or under the guise of “I have a problem, can I just ask…”, only to be used for their own business gains. I too feel that this may have happened to me, either consciously or not by the party in question, but as my dad said: “You can’t patent what you did so there isn’t really anything you can say.” There isn’t, which is a shame, but it has definitely made me more wary. Also, to quote my dad again: “Being better is the way to beat the opposition.” Too true. My mantra has always been that if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well, for the idea, choice of colours, quality of finish, the little details and the overall look. It is what I pride myself on and I will work tirelessly until I, my own worst critic, am happy with what I have produced.

Some may say, taking my style of animals for example, that I am copying Japanese style characters. Maybe I am, but I have almost 30 years of drawings of fat animals to show you and you will see that it is the way I have always drawn them, so now I have translated that into cakes. As a child, I wasn’t aware of why I drew things the way I did, it just came naturally to me and has been my style ever since. If 10 people all drew an animal, say a mouse, and someone who knows me looked at the drawings, I guarantee they would be able to pick mine out from a long distance away. It is like my handwriting, it is my style.

I think there are a few of exceptions. Firstly, if you can buy it as a mould, you can’t really complain about someone else having the same mould and doing something similar. Again, it is the way you use it in your overall design that makes it special but it is ever likely that someone else will be using the equipment in a similar way. It’s what it was designed for. Secondly, if you have taken a class in a certain style of cake decorating, or indeed have been paid to teach one, it is ever likely that the others in the class, or your students, will be using their new found talents. Then again, you have received money for giving out hints, tips and advice so this is all good. Likewise, if you have written a book, you have sold your ideas. Chances are, by the time you get to write a book, and by the fact that you have had the opportunity to publish, you are well known for your style so people will recognise your designs. I don’t think Mich Turner has much of an issue with people making pinstriped mini cakes with glittery roses on top as it links straight back to her and only helps to boost her profile.

There are also designs that are so much in the public domain, it is difficult to know whose idea it was in the first place, and ever likely that as a cake designer, you will at some point be asked to make a version of it. I think the onus there is on the designer to take the standard design and make it their own, put that little unique stamp on it so that it is more than just another xxxx. If you are planning your wedding or special birthday cake, you would be looking for the person who can do this, so this relates back to having your own design handwriting and showing that you have that extra something that is different.

To finish off, I will just say these two points:

Businesses beware. It is always a risk in business that if you come up with a great idea that you can’t protect (or even if you can, as someone will nearly always find a way around it), you open yourself up to others thinking: “Great idea! I’ll try that!” and so you have to be wary. As a small or start up business, two of your main strengths are your novel and fresh approach, and your dedication and enthusiasm to deliver a perfect product for the customer, no matter how long it takes. However, you don’t have fame to protect you as people won’t see your designs and necessarily think or you. Therefore, if someone is using your ideas and recreating them, no matter how small it starts off as, you could slowly but surely be losing that USP and find that other people have overtaken you, while you have been putting in all the hard graft to come up with designs and work out how to bring them to life. It’s like Damien Hurst. Anyone can cut a sheep in half and shove it in a glass box but thinking of that idea was the hardest part and the biggest step, no matter whether you personally consider it art or animal humiliation, or just a waste of a good Sunday lunch. I would say that even if it begins with a few minor things, you never know how much of a problem it will become. I don’t want to be paranoid about it, constantly checking that nobody has copied me, what is everyone else doing? does that look a bit like mine? but I am very aware of what I say, how open I am and to whom, and what “secrets” I allow into the public domain.

Buyer beware. Very few people have come to me wanting a cake and said: “Here is a picture. Please copy this. It is exactly what I am looking for.” In these instances, it has always been a novelty cake that I have previously made, so they want a specific character, like the way I have turned it into a cake and want the same. Most people, especially brides, will have some ideas, know what they like and don’t like, and it is the design process that allows me to use their requests and my own ideas to come up with their perfect cake, which is personal to them. If a cake business is run based on taking designs from other people, I would be concerned about their design capabilities and creative flair, so when a bride-to-be wants a unique and personal cake designed, what ideas have they got to call upon? I think it is also difficult to tell if people’s designs are genuinely their own and how much they have been inspired by others. We are all inspired by others in some capacity, be it the shape of their business, the way they stick to a certain style, pretty patterns or minimalist chic, even other people’s unique designs but in a different medium e.g. wallpaper is a great source of inspiration for cakes but then again, it’s not such a case of stepping on someone else’s toes as a bride wouldn’t be choosing between having a cake at her reception or repapering the walls of the room.

I think somehow though, you can just tell. Coherency of portfolio is probably the biggest giveaway.

I hope this post has been useful. I didn’t want to sound ranty or preachy, but I felt that it needed to be said. On with the cake business then, I have a Razorback that won’t ice itself! x