Frankendesign – When Re-Using Old Designs Makes Sense

Do you all know the story of Frankenstein’s monster? A mad scientist attempts to create a living creature using parts from a myriad of individuals. Designers often have a lot in common with this classic tale, using elements from their old designs to create new ones for completely different clients.

This of course raises the question: is it ethical to do what I like to call “Frankendesign”? When is it a good time to dig up old work and repurpose it, and when should you create something entirely new?

Check The Legalities

First, I have to state the obvious disclaimer: when a client purchases exclusive rights to your work, that means they alone can make the decisions about where and how to reproduce it. It’s what they’re paying for, after all. So always make sure you have legal permission to use any previous client work that would be recognizable.

If no one can recognize it, then it’s probably fine to use. To be on the safe side, make sure you own the rights to your work. The topic of intellectual property and selling rights to design work can and has filled entire books, but as a side note, unless there’s a specific reason a client needs exclusive rights, it’s probably better not to offer them.

Time Factor

In many art and design fields, reusable graphic elements are called assets – the designer creates them once, and they can be used over and over in many different projects. A typeface is an example of a common 2D design asset. Some type designer created it one time, and you bought the license to reuse it again and again.

Another type of asset is a template, or a fixed composition that allows you to drop in designs in infinite combinations, knowing that they’re always going to look good together. Templates can be formal (Adobe software usually comes with dozens of pre-made templates that are free to use), or – my favorite – simply custom made compositions that suit your own style and needs.

Time constraints factor in big here. If you need, say, a custom layout for a WordPress theme, and your client has given you a tight deadline, it makes sense to simply use a template from something you’ve done before, switching out the actual design elements for new ones relevant to the project.

Dig Into That Huge Backlog

If you’ve been designing for awhile, you’ll eventually build up an enormous backlog of work, everything from early drafts that were never used to full-blown projects that were killed at the last minute. Variations, revisions, that thing you did for your mom for her church’s bake sale. Whatever it is, you’ve probably saved it.

Even if you only design part-time, it’s inevitable that you will accumulate many gigabytes of designs: logos, navigation buttons, custom type and lettering, vector illustrations, and so on. This is great for the designer on a deadline, because it means that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel each time you sit down to do a new project.

If you’re not already in the habit of cataloguing your old designs, I would recommend getting started on that ASAP. Not only will it help you find exactly the type of asset you need right when you need it, it will also give you the opportunity to study your old work, rather than just toss it in a folder somewhere.

Use Old Work To Get New Ideas

That leads us to perhaps the best use of old designs: inspiration. Designers are often inspired by old work they did, using it as inspiration to create new work. Perhaps there was an idea that wasn’t appropriate for that client at the time, but that you now want to explore. Or maybe you print out a previous layout or sketch and use it in a mood board to show a new client your thought process.

Another reason to study old work is so that you can get better as a designer. The more you examine what you did in the past, the easier you can correct mistakes and avoid technical errors going forward. I make it a habit to reorganize my old work every quarter at least, browsing through for old dogs that I can teach a new trick or two.

What Do You Think?

Do you use “Frankendesigns” in your work? What do you think of the practice – should designers reuse their old work more, or less? What insights have you learned from repurposing your old work?