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Definition of derivative design in the creative process

Rachel Goodchild | Creating Pattern

Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art
Ancient textile sample. (Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

A derivative design is an artwork based on, or derived from, one or more already existing designs. Museums or textile archives often want to be able to use items from their collection to repurpose onto products that they can sell in their museum shop or website. A derivative design is basically obtaining something from a specified source. The source can be anything from an old piece of ephemera or a piece of vintage textile, and the original can often be a tiny segment, or a damaged, discoloured snippet of something from the past.

Old designs are cleaned up, and in some cases re-illustrated, colour-fixed, and repaired, etc. The designer will then work on turning the derived design into a high quality technical seamless pattern repeat. The museums can then place the new pattern repeat onto their desired surface in order to sell. An example of this could be products such as tea towels, wrapping paper, china cups, stationery, clothing, wallpaper, interiors, etc.

The term "derivative" refers to something that is based on or derived from another source. In the context of design, however, it is not always that straight-forward, and below I have tried to explain with some examples.

Derived from Existing Design

This involves creating a new design that is based on or shares similarities with an existing design, (in this case one that has owner copyright, or that is outside the 70-year copyright period). This design could be an updated version of the original design, which can often be the case for museums and archives, or a similar design with new colourway, or it could be as simple as being turned into a pattern repeat from an image that has only ever been a placement design. An example of this could be these hand painted Japanese fabric pieces from the 1920s that were turned into wrapping paper.

Derived Design Elements

Derivative design elements refer to the practice of incorporating or modifying existing design elements, concepts, or design ideas into a new creation. This might involve taking inspiration from established designs and adapting them to suit a different purpose or context. This can be the case when a client gives you a sample of an old design asking you to capture the feel of the design, whilst giving it a modern feel. An example of this could be this simple line drawing from the 1930s that had colour added and was placed onto products.

Adapting Existing Design for Different Contexts

This could involve taking a design originally intended for one context and adapting it for a different context or audience. In a case where the client owns the copyright or it is within their archives, they may wish to have it cleaned up and turned into a pattern repeat in order for it to be made accessible for different surfaces. An example of this could be this 1800's archive embroidery turned into a pattern repeat for wrapping paper.

Evolutionary Design

Derivative design can also be used to describe an approach that emphasises a gradual evolution and improvement over time, building upon existing designs rather than starting from scratch. In this instance it could be a an image or branding of a long established company who wish to keep the original idea of their artwork, but want to modernise it. An example of this could be the Starbucks evolutionary imaging over the years.

Derivative Design Mood Boards

Below are examples of some projects I worked on using derivative design.

Rachel Goodchild | Design

Rachel Goodchild | Design

Rachel Goodchild | Design

Rachel Goodchild | Design

Rachel Goodchild | Design

Rachel Goodchild | Design

Rachel Goodchild | Design

Note: The Legal Context of Derived Design

One must be very careful when working in this area of design, as in a legal context "derivative design" might refer to a design that is closely related or similar to an existing design. This could potentially raise issues of intellectual property or design patent infringement. It is vital that any permissions required are granted before the designer commences work.


Rachel Goodchild | Design Blog

Creating Pattern for Textile, Product, Home & Packaging

Rachel is a member of ACID (Anti Copying In Design) & DACS (Design & Artists Copyright Society)​All copyright, design rights and other intellectual property rights in Rachel’s designs and products,

as well as images, text and design of this blog remain the property of Rachel Goodchild.

Any infringement of these rights will be vigorously pursued. ​Copyright Images © Rachel Goodchild 2023. All rights reserved.



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