Emilyn Cheong, a student at Lasalle College of the Arts in Singapore, asked me a few questions for her final year project, titled “Originality Trouble.” Emilyn’s aim is “to enlighten and inspire design students to create the new and fresh without the fear of being branded as plagiarists.”
I thought our chat might help other students, so here’s the Q&A.
1. What defines originality in design?
Originality isn’t a term I tend to use when designing. Part of me thinks I’d be misleading my clients if I say I’ll create an original outcome. Appropriate, distinctive, adaptable — they’re the aspects I like to keep in mind.
2. Do you think it’s still possible to find a design that is original?
It depends to an extent on what’s being designed, and on your definition of original. The Dyson Air Multiplier comes to mind — original in how it works, but at the same time it’s still a fan.
Then I wonder how different something needs to be before it’s original. I suppose that depends on who’s making the claim.
Something might be completely original to you, but we’re all limited in how much information we can take in, so while you believe in the originality of a product, the more popular it becomes and the more it’s seen by others around the world the greater the likelihood of it’s existence elsewhere (or at least something very similar).
3. Do you think the pursuit of originality can be detrimental to design?
The quality of the designer plays a part, and at which point he or she is prepared to say, “It’s good enough.” If you’re designing for the sake of originality, it’s probably at the expense of the project’s goal — to fulfil an existing need or to communicate information. There’s a relevant quote, “Done is better than perfect.” So if your thing is similar to another thing, perhaps it’s better to ask yourself, have you made it better?
4. What one piece of advice would you give to a young aspiring designer who is struggling with the pressure of being original?
Paul Rand paraphrased Ludwig Mies van der Rohe when he said, “Don’t try to be original. Just try to be good.” That’s my appropriately unoriginal piece of advice.
I know Emilyn would appreciate your answers to any of the questions. I would, too.
On similar lines is this piece by Eric Karjaluoto from 2006: Is originality superfluous?