For centuries, artists have used mimicry to expose truths, share political commentary, and highlight the hypocrisy of those in power. Until recently, the powerful were always distinguishable individuals, with unique hairdos, voices, or other personal characteristics that could easily be copied and recognized. Today, those in power are increasingly large corporate brands and government agencies without a clear leader or public figure available to parody. What are artists doing now?

Enter designer and educator Danny Rankin and his TEDxMileHigh talk on counterfeit design. By using graphic design as a tool for satire, he advocates for people to continue to question those in power by imitating their voice—by stealing their images, fonts, and brand identity.

Counterfeit Design 

When Rankin first started working at the Apple Store, he reveled in the feeling that he was working for “the world’s most admired company—creative, and cool, and maybe even a little rebellious.” But after five years, it got old.

One day, while hiding from customers to have a good cry, Rankin noticed a couple of cheesy posters hanging on the wall. He saw an opportunity. 

“I did what any disgruntled creative-type with a background in graphic design and a couple hours of downtime would do—I hatched a diabolical scheme to replace the posters with a series of absurd replicas.” – Danny Ranking

He started small, with a few typographic errors “to check if people were paying attention.” Then he made some even bigger changes, replacing most of the stock images with photos of Paul Deen. 

When his managers eventually sat him down to express disappointment, Rankin realized something.

“I didn’t feel the least bit bad about it. Because I realized something at that moment—my little counterfeit poster designs had the power to turn an entire retail store management team against me. And that was powerful.”

The ATLAS Institute

This discovery brought Rankin to the University of Colorado Boulder’s ATLAS Institute, where he now teaches college students about counterfeit design. And truly, you can do this too. 

When it comes to those in power in modern times, Rankin explains, “their fonts, their logos, slogans—they’re often so ubiquitous that anyone with a computer can get ahold of them. This means anybody with some graphic design chops and keen attention to detail can pick a fight with the powerful, on their turf.”

But, he warns, “before you all start burning down the establishment, you need to know what you’re getting yourself into.”

Three Things Any Budding Counterfeit Designer Should Think About

1. Be Ready For a Fight

When you’re fighting against the powerful, you will likely make some powerful enemies. 

Take Hustler Magazine’s fake advertisement in 1983. The ad parodied a popular Campari liqueur campaign, where one celebrity used clever innuendos to talk about their “first time” drinking Campari. In the fake ad, they used Jerry Falwell, the famous religious televangelist, for a particularly raunchy interview. 

Falwell, needless to say, sued Hustler. Three years later, the case the Supreme Court made a decision about the case. In the end, Hustler won, “in what’s now considered a landmark case regarding the freedom of satirical speech,” explains Rankin.

2. When You Pick That Fight, Pick a Worthy Target

People can misuse counterfeit design (think fake IDs and fake news). But that is not its purpose.

“Counterfeit design isn’t about sowing chaos and anarchy. It’s about selectively choosing a powerful target that really sets off your bullsh*t detectors. It’s about punching up at big targets—not beating down on people who already deal with more than their fair share of harassment.” – Danny Rankin

Here’s a great example: 

When the world caught Volkswagen changing their car emissions data in 2014, they created an ad offering a public apology. But Brandalism, an artist-collective, created counterfeit ads that swapped Volkswagen’s “We’re Sorry” with “We’re Sorry We Got Caught”.  The group placed these ads all around Paris during the COP21 climate talks, leading to high visibility and impact. 

3. Don’t Expect to Change the World (Expect to Change You)

While counterfeit design can create powerful commentary against “the man,” it’s important to keep your expectations in check. 

Sometimes your designs get thrown into the trash or are completely ignored. It’s just part of the gig. You need to value the work you do yourself in order to keep going.

“The work is still valuable, for its own sake. Because when we dig down into what an advertisement is really saying in order to make a joke out of it, we start to break the spell that mass media casts over us. We take some of that power back for ourselves and add our own voices to an otherwise lopsided conversation.” – Danny Rankin

For the powerful out there, Rankin offers a warning: “We know what fonts you use. We know your brand identity. And if you won’t tell the truth, we will steal your voice and tell it for you.”