Late in the summer of 2015, the Japanese Olympic Committee selected Art director Kenjiro Sano's logo design for the 2020 Olympics. It's a great logo, unfortunately so was Olivier Debie's logo for Théâtre de Liège in Belgium.
The theft seems obvious, but is it? Modern logos tend to be exercises in simplicity and minimalism... and there are thousands upon thousands of them. I'm inclined to give Kenjiro Sano the benefit of the doubt. Although, I've read that he has been accused of similar "borrowing" before. Whatever the circumstances, Olivier Debie's logo came first. The Japanese Olympic Committee eventually did the right thing when they opted to use a new design. If it was an honest mistake, I'll bet Sano wishes that he'd discovered the similarities before the twitterverse did.
A few years ago, I designed a logo for a company that produces medical equipment. The logo featured a shield incorporating a letter as a stylized reflection. From initial sketch to final art, everything was 100% original. Based on my clients input. Created by me. For sure.
Exept it wasn't. An art student created the same logo a few years earlier. Thankfully, I'm the person who found that earlier design. I had to call my client and explain that the logo they spent time and money on had to be scrapped. It was embarrassing, and I had to spend several unpaid late nights coming up with another design.
I do my best to avoid this sort of thing. While designing a logo, I enter various a descriptions of it in a search engine. I also do searches based on the artwork, variations of the clients name and their industry. If I see anything close, I move in a new direction. Even after all that, I came very close to duplicating someone else's design. I discovered the problem because a new search term occurred to me.
The story of the 2020 Olympics logo illlustrates how hard it has become to create unique logos in today's crowded marketplace. There are steps we can take to avoid Sano's mistake.
1) Base your logo on the unique aspects of your client. When a logo tells a unique story, it has a better chance of being an original design.
2) Create lists of keywords that describe your proposed logo, your client and your client's industry. Search for logos or icons based on those terms.
3) Give Google's "visually similar" image search a try.
4) Ask your client if they've seen a similar design! They know their industry better than you do.
5) Ask the design community. There are several forums devoted to logo design.