Originality: the unicorn fairy of design

So we have this client at work who is truly, madly, deeply obsessed with the idea of originality. Cue eye-roll.

“Okay, waitasec,” you might think, “why someone who calls herself a creative professional pooh-pooh originality? Is that not the foundation of what you do?”

Well, yes, to an extent. Sort of. Actually no, not really.

Originality is one of those things that you eventually learn, usually the hard way at art school, that it doesn’t really exist. And if it does not really exist in the art world, than it might as well be a unicorn fairy in the design world. Because…

Starting with one of my favorite quotes of all time: “While great art makes you wonder, great design makes things clear.” (John Maeda said it, and in classic Maeda style, he makes things just as simple as they need to be, and no simpler.)

Great design has the power to communicate itself to the intended audience with clarity and richness, but communication is founded on convention. Language, the best communication tool we have, is a convention. Our mutual agreement that certain arbitrarily arranged phonemes and morphemes do mean certain things allows us to share complex thoughts efficiently and effectively. In order to impart meaning, design (and a lot of art) rests on what we share as participants in common culture(s)—common symbols, icons, memes… even facial expressions. A clever designer knows how to craft a message using these collectively shared things. And though the elements he often chooses are non-literal (suggestive photography and illustration, stylistic flourishes) and/or abstract (letterforms, shapes, lines, colors), the target audience can make sense of it all, feel the emotions he wanted to evoke, think the thoughts he wanted to suggest. All this because of not being original.

Of course, you can define originality several ways: it can mean “distinctness” or “cleverness” or just plain “trying something you’ve never tried before.” But here I’m referring to originality in the original (eek, sorry) sense: that of being “unique,” “the first,” “the one and only,” etc.

Back to our client: this whole thing started when she expressed indignity over a competitor’s forms. She claimed that they looked like a copy of his own; however they look nothing alike other than in that they’re both forms (i.e. they have fields for writing, the fields have labels, etc.). I later found out that she has a history of sensitivity over being copied (“That website has the same color as mine! They used a similar picture!”), yet the business she’s in is a niche business, and there are only 7 hues in the visible spectrum. How do you respond to something like that? You can’t have a unique form… you just can’t. People wouldn’t know how to use the silly thang.

Face it, client person. The design world is huge. And it’s not just the design world, there is a whole universe of visual/conceptual grazing beyond it. Sooner or later, someone will hit upon the exact same concept as the one you’ve got. Instead of being indignant that they may/may not have copied you, just think of it as a little pat on the back.  The idea, the way you decided to communicate it, works great enough to be enduring, to be effective, maybe even to make people happy. It will therefore be used again and again. Ideas are resources. Don’t hog resources.

The idea of originality is not necessarily at odds with a desire to communicate clearly, but an obsession with originality rings like a denial of the importance and necessity of shared culture. It’s like saying it is more important to stand out than to reach out.

I realize there are a lot of angles from which you can look at originality, and this is merely one of many. Originality in the sense of “cleverness” or “distinctness” should not be discounted by any means. This is a ginormous topic of discussion in the design/art world about originality that I’m not going to be able to cover in one blog post. But my point here is, every so often, someone thinks that they can be original in the sense of “truly unique” and… well, that ain’t ever gonna happen.

As designers, we gotta do the best we can, maybe even we’ll win an award if it rocks someone’s socks… but we can’t ever think we are alone in the universe.

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