Wednesday, March 15th, 2006

Is originality superfluous?

Is originality superfluous?
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Around our studio the notion of original work is highly important. Perhaps this has roots in my background as a painter, where the pursuit of the new always felt quite important; however, design is not art and I ponder whether some of those aspirations are simply out of place in this pursuit.

Lately, I’m seeing our ideas everywhere

We work hard to conceive of new ideas at our studio. This is always something that we couple with the more pressing need to make creative that meets the client’s objectives; nevertheless, I still want our ideas to be ours. As a result, I’ve been a little perplexed as of late, to find so many of the directions we’ve conceived of, mirrored in the work of others. There’s nothing that quite matches the frustration of opening the most recent issue of Communication Arts, to find a variation of one of your ideas in print.

I want to be really clear here. By no means am I saying that there’s any kind of theft of our ideas going on; rather, I believe that many of us are simply finding similar ways to solve problems. This all makes some degree of sense. If an individual visited a half-dozen restaurants and asked for a rich, filling, tomato-based dish containing pasta, odds are high that in many instances, she would be presented with spaghetti or some variation of it.

I think about those unfortunate designers at SicolaMartin, who created the most recent iteration of the Quark logo. From all accounts, they did things right. They went through a sound process, did the necessary trademark research, and arrived at a solution that must have seemed appropriate. As most know, they have been lambasted around the world for their creative solution. But really, how many new forms are out there? Is it realistic to expect these designers to guarantee that this is the only possible incarnation of this form, in the world?

I’m not presenting this notion as an excuse, but rather as a sensation that I believe we may all be experiencing more and more these days. (And I suspect that we’ll be feeling it with greater regularity in years to come.)

The cost of being original

As designers, we try to hold ourselves to a standard of creating work that is original and new. We like the notion that our ideas are new creations, but this simply cannot be; rather, our ideas are a result of our personal visual and emotional language applied to a particular problem or situation. We are all loaded with a somewhat unique arsenal of language and tools which we can apply to a problem. We originate nothing, but rather invent through the combination of new variations. We are the mash-up artists of communication.

With time and globalization, more of us have access to similar data and experiences. I have to wonder if life for someone in San Francisco, or for that matter London, is really that different from life for me in Vancouver. Do they see or read things that are vastly different from what we find here? We all know that our icons and language are becoming increasingly omnipresent. This is wonderful in one respect as it often allows us to share references or shorthand that will be understood by a wider audience. On the other hand, I believe that a more common global landscape is resulting in less original work.

Of course, it’s always possible to achieve the goal of making more original work. We simply have to become less general with the references and language we use. The question that presents however, is in doing so, do we limit the reach of what is ultimately a method of communication? As we seek the original, it is likely that our language becomes more personal, and therefore reduces our audience to a very small group. In some instances this is completely okay; however, the situation in which it is acceptable to exclude so many from a message is generally quite rare. The occasional campaign intended for a very narrow subculture can of course do this, but few of us work on projects that feature such a specific target.

Perhaps originality is just unnecessary in the vast majority of communication design. Maybe it is our job to learn to appropriate well. This awareness of cultural discourse allows us to more shrewdly present variations of ideas/treatments that serve a specific need. Design may simply be a dialogue that can only make minor variations upon a common vernacular, in order to remain relevant.

The race for “most clever”

Why are so many of us chasing the notion of being original and new? Part of this I believe, can be attributed to the weight that our culture puts behind being new or innovative. Few are interested in something that works well, when the promise of something new is present. Of course, this sort of thinking leads us to seemingly preposterous ideas such as disposable razors which incorporate five or six blades.

Additionally, I have to lay some industry-specific blame on the advertising and design awards which our practice holds in such high regard. In some part, I’m always critical of design awards. Don’t get me wrong, I’d like to receive more of them, but when I peruse design annuals, I can’t help but wonder if they really make any sense at all. Very few of these award shows seem to acknowledge how effective a campaign was, and instead focus on how fun or “clever” the idea is. This is great, as it makes for very beautiful design annuals, but was that ever really the point of our profession?

I often contemplate the design worthiness of utilitarian pieces which pay no attention to the principles of visual balance and materiality. A good example of this would be an ugly, photocopied “30% off” coupon on canary yellow copy paper. This is the kind of thing that one would hardly want to reference as a product of their creative output; however, should it increase sales for a local “mom & pop” diner, wouldn’t it be better designed than something more handsome (and original) that resulted in no benefit to the client or end consumer?

To be in any way accurate in their assessment of design, I believe that award annuals should weight the effectiveness of a campaign/design as heavily as they weight the innovative use of materials, or presentation of an idea. That however, would be awfully tricky, and I certainly am not proposing such a difficult method for evaluating work. That being said, I don’t think it hurts to consider the flawed nature of this generally accepted practice.

In part, this critical perspective is what slows our studio from entering award shows. At the same time, I’m well aware that we’d only have to win a few awards to think that award shows were pretty neat.

Most everyone wants to be an innovator. I can’t imagine a designer who wouldn’t like to be recognized as the one who rewrote the rules on how we practice our craft. I suppose my question is, are we striving to be celebrities, or are we professionals? What’s more important to us as an industry? Maybe the designer should remain transparent. Ours may be at its best in remaining a “behind the scenes” profession.

What I think we should be doing

nike_runningAs designers, it is important to remove the ego from the work. The personal should only be relevant where it seeks to inform the message. For example, Nike Running ran a series of brilliant ads, conceived of by Wieden + Kennedy in which a morning shower turns from a bland outpouring of water, into a series of perfect droplets, racing to revitalize the body. The viewer is succinctly reminded of the exhilaration of a good run, and how everything feels better after such physical exertion. This series is incredibly powerful. Instead of showcasing the wit of the creatives at the agency, they focus on conveying a truism of sport that evokes real excitement with the viewer. I’m hard pressed to believe that a couch potato dreamed-up this campaign. The person who delivered these must have personally experienced the clarity found following a good run.

We are communicators whose responsibility it is to articulate thoughts more efficiently and persuasively than the untrained. In order to communicate that capably, we simply must posses a stronger comprehension of many topics than most, as well as a greater visual or “idea” vocabulary than the general public. This of course takes time and dedication to develop; nevertheless, I believe that it is simply necessary, in order to become a good designer.

Designers should always be expanding their knowledge of design, history, popular culture, politics, music, art, social conditions; moreover, we have to try to understand what motivates our own human interaction. This cumulative knowledge and experience is what helps us build more insightful design. We aspire to be those who can command visual and verbal language in order to articulate a message in the most poignant fashion.

To accomplish this, we have to know what that crisp shower feels like after a morning run, where we push ourselves to the limit. We should understand references to Seinfeld and appreciate the cultural importance that musicians like Kanye West have to a new generation.

We must know fear, happiness, frustration, and joy. We should remember what love feels like, and the sensation of losing something. We should aspire to be brave enough to experience as many aspects of life as possible. Through this, we can inform our communication as best possible. An understanding of behaviour and motivation is as much a part of our repertoire as a comprehension of visual balance or typography.

So what if similar notions may have been explored before? What is to be lost if the typography we employ isn’t the most innovative treatment imagined? So long as it’s effective in accomplishing what was required from the effort, perhaps we have performed as well as one should expect. I may not need my new home to be built in the most innovative fashion imaginable, but I certainly would appreciate that the architect had planned around my needs and expectations, and delivered accordingly.

At smashLAB, I believe that we will always search for novel ways to communicate; nevertheless, we’re trying to put more emphasis on the function and intended result of our work, over our own need to be perceived as clever or intelligent. Sometimes I find that this is much harder to do than logic would suggest.

So, you tell me… What do you believe that we as an industry should aspire towards? Moreover, how important is originality in the work that you do? Let’s talk about this one–I want to hear what you think.

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Comments & Trackbacks

  1. I agree completely with what has been written, especially:

    "Designers should always be expanding their knowledge of design, history, popular culture, politics, music, art, social conditions; moreover, we have to try to understand what motivates our own human interaction."

    To understand what and why we are designing will lead into the functionality of our designs. Thus delving into the balance of function and form. Which should come first? I personally think that from excellent function comes great form. Look at much of the asian minimalist designs that focus on the efficiency of function, in turn creating ground breaking designs.

    But still, where does the originality come from? From that one crazy dream, or from making something from the past your own. I really don't know. But I do feel there is merit in having balls enough to do something no one else is doing, despite the fact you may have seen it done similarly in your old art history book.

  2. In the book Design Research, there's a great essay on creativity that defines creativity as the ability to take past experiences and new information and synthesize them to create a new form/idea. That's exactly what we do as designers, which makes sense because that's also what we do as social beings. Our understanding of the world around us is predicated on our ability to take the past and the present and make something new out of it. We're constantly remixing our knowledge of what we experience.

    Roland Barthes' Mythologies takes an academic look at this socio-cultural revision of which we are all part. As designers, we have to be deeply aware of how myth revision (or story telling, and retelling) work within culture and communication.

    In my daily work, effectiveness of function is more important than creating original forms. I work within our clients' brand guidelines, so that limits how "original" I can really be to a certain degree. My goal is to create something that meets the client's needs *and* the user's needs, and then to make it look good. It's fun to push the limits of the brand guidelines and see how far I can go before they break, and to apply them to something the guidelines creators never considered.

    For the industry, I'd like to see a greater emphasis put on evaluating and critiquing effectiveness of communication and function, and less emphasis on the "glossy" qualities of design. As you say, design isn't art. If something looks cool but fails to communicate, then it doesn't work.

  3. Selby says:

    YES yes yes yes YES! I so agree with all you've said and it couldn’t have come at a better time for me.

    I was discussing this issue recently with a friend who is (also) a Graphic Designer and who was feeling ashamed of a recent In-store promo shed done, as it was a bit too bright n tacky etc. according to her ( I never saw it as she was too embarrassed to admit who it was for), and she thought it wasn’t "good design" -whatever that is. She was sure she was right because as well as being her own opinion, she’d been told by all the other designers she works with it wasn’t "good design".

    The point I tried to make to her was that yes, it would be nice, if we all did amazingly wonderful, and original, and inspiring,and just world changing etc. design all the time, but for most of us with the other commitments in our lives, it ‘just ain’t so’; and the way it most often ends up, is moments of brilliance, interspersed, with design that gets the job done.

    The important thing I said, was that 1) The client came away happy their needs had been understood and met and 2) The design achieved the purpose it was set out to achieve. In her case it was sposed to push more product, so I said “ was the client happy with it? did it push more product ? o.k , then it WAS good design, and you can tell everyone else to ‘shut it’ “.

    As we speak I’m emailing her a link to this article and I hope she’ll read it and at least weigh carefully what you have to say and see if it’s worth taking on board.

    Good on you, for being willing to question the establishment, and the way things have ‘always been done’ in our industry.

  4. Pingback: Originality in design | David Airey, graphic designer

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