The evolution of the project idea file

Before the Internet became the go to resource for just about everything, a project idea file we would receive from a homeowner for their remodeling job might consist of a couple earmarked magazines, a reference book or a few sketches. Now it is not unusual to be provided photo files with hundreds of entries, as well as spreadsheets with every detail of the project specified. If the homeowner could not obtain enough detail online, it was just an email or phone call away. For instance, I recently received a call from a woman in Minnesota about a wet bar she saw in a collection of photos that we had posted on the popular home design website, Houzz.com. She had an identical space in her home and asked if it would be okay for her to have a local company use the picture to replicate the design. In essence, our work product became her idea file.

Although the call about the details from one of our projects was not particularly unusual, it left me wondering just how often design work is pulled from photos in the public domain – like the award-winning projects in this issue of Qualified Remodeler – and simply duplicated by homeowners, contractors and other design professionals. Whatever the frequency, it is only going to become more common with the proliferation of websites that simplify the process of identifying, capturing and sharing photos of creative design ideas – from Houzz to Pinterest and Facebook to Instagram. It also presents some issues for those of us providing design services.

As we continue to post project photos online, I find that we are spending more and more time responding to requests for information. Since most of the questions are coming from people outside our service area, like the caller from Minnesota, we are dedicating resources and, essentially, providing free design services to homeowners (and even other design professionals) that are not in a position to send work our way. Yet, we use online photos as inspiration for our projects, including those provided by our clients. At times, we are even asked to simply replicate a project from pictures a homeowner has found on the Web. Collectively, this has raised a number of questions.

If we elect to publish photos of our work, how much time are we willing to spend sharing the details of our efforts? If we draw inspiration from others based on photos from the Web or a magazine, when does our work constitute nothing more than design plagiarism? If consumers believe that design is as easy as copying the details from a picture, how do we overcome this perception? Are we willing to simply mimic the work of others on our projects, if that is all that is requested?

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