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 — those are the aspects I focus on.

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.

Dyson Air MultiplierDyson Air Multiplier photo via Unfinished Man, and how it works

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.” 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.

On similar lines is this piece by Eric Karjaluoto: Is originality superfluous?


October 20, 2013


I agree that it is difficult to determine if something is original. For me a piece is original when I wish I have done it myself and I wonder why I haven’t thought of that.

I think, as always, it comes down to the problem that you are solving for your client. For example imagine this bizarre, but possible, scenario…

Client B has the exact same business problem, target market, business values and product as Client A. Previously you created a perfect solution to Client A’s problem. Would it be wrong to use the same solution for Client B? Or would it be better to try to create another solution, which may not work, just to be original?

If this problem was a website development problem or a software problem then it would be wise to use the same, proven, solution. Why should it be any different for communication?

However if you change one variable in the above example then it may warrant a totally different solution. As long as you are solving the correct problem for your client, and doing it well, then originality shouldn’t matter.

I think what David says is valid, for somebody that does not necessarily have focus on originality, and that is the status quo. Are you ready to be original? Your expectations aren’t always aligned with reality. We are not taught to be original.

Is going after originality really necessary?

My personal thoughts is that design should be functional first. Don’t try too hard to be “original”, otherwise you’ll be distracted from the main point, which is that your work should be solving a problem.

Look at other projects on sites such as Behance and get inspiration so that you can use what fits within your own work.

“Originality is nothing but judicious imitation. The most original writers borrowed one from another.” – Voltaire

A very good Q&A. Emilyn Cheong, your questions were decent and thanks for sharing David. It’s very interesting to see your perspective on different aspects of design.

It’s weird. Reading this reminds me that the DNA part of my brand name stands for both uniqueness/originally & traits/trends and that when I started, my desire was to create designs that were original for clients.

However, I’ve come to realise that creating an original design is only relative to the design brief and not always the best method. This Q&A really does shed some light on that aspect.

Being able to create something that is original and yet 100% relative when it comes to the solution is a great achievement – but I no longer believe that pure originally should be at the forefront of the creative’s mind when designing.

Originality is something people like to talk about a lot. And we all have our own hopes centered around it. It’s a designers preoccupation, it can drive the creative mind in circles. An artist I look up to at a local meetup said something to me about a year ago “nothing is original anymore” I disagreed at the time it was said. Today though I think the statement may be somewhat true.

Beautifully written post. I do agree with Max’s statement, that expectations are not often aligned with originality.

With the plethora of designs that are out, I do believe that you can still find originality. It’s what pushes the bar higher and keeps everyone moving forward. It’s never fun to do the same thing over and while clientele do enjoy basing their presence off of someone else’s design, an “original” touch can take something from regular to extraordinary.

Hey an interesting article, but originality-in-design, in these fast changing times doesn’t really come easy when there’s a process involved and a client it certainly makes it very challenging.

Nice post. I believe originality is extremely rare. Maybe everything is built off of whatever preceded it. For example, the car replaced the horse and carriage. It’s a very radical change, but it is just another mode of transport. They both essentially have the same purpose (except one can do the job quicker).

I wonder if sometimes originality is found in our imperfections. I have tried to imitate styles of drawing I love, but my skills are so lacking that I end up with a piece so completely my own I wonder if I had even been looking at the original artwork. What I produce is original, unintentional and sometimes very attractive. The result would be difficult to reproduce because it was not planned, but made from my imperfections. And they are my imperfections, no one else is imperfect in quite the same way! I really believe our limitations can help us to find originality, though they can be frustrating and cause inconsistency.

Originality is overrated. For any design problem, there exists a perfect solution. If you come across a design problem that has already been solved with the perfect solution, to deviate from that perfect solution for the sole reason of originality is to deliberately provide a faulty solution.

The above is a bit irrelevant because perfection in design doesn’t exist (debatable though!), but it still applies to the situation where an obviously better solution exists and you choose not to copy it for originality’s sake.

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