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the big bang

in the ‘writing a masters thesis is hard’ thread, tom gleason said: “What is original will open eyes, and opening eyes is effective.”

what is original?

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PUBLISHED ON May.07.2004 BY graham
Cory R’s comment is:


Something that hasn't been done before.

Putting a new perspective on something old. Revitalizing, reinvigorating, a fresh face.


Going the extra mile to be remarkable, not just satisfactory.

These things produce "original" results. Think of the opposite question: What is not original?

Reproducing what's already out there. Lack of new perspectives, new insights, new ideas, new ways of thinking. These things produce "unoriginal" results.


Or at least that's what I believe defines "original" work.

On May.07.2004 at 10:39 AM
JonSel’s comment is:

Is it worth splitting this into "Original" — never, ever, been done before — and "original"�— as seen through the eyes of a client (i.e never done before in their field) ?

On May.07.2004 at 10:44 AM
Cory R’s comment is:

I guess, just like art, design, branding, , one man's trash is another man's treasure.

Maybe being "original" is not what someone working on a master thesis should be striving towards. At its most basic form, shouldn't it simply involve applying everything you have learned in your studies in a meaningful way?

Whether it is "original" or not shouldn't be the tape-measure for a Masters, but whether you understand and are able to apply what you have learned, should be.

What do you think?

On May.07.2004 at 10:58 AM
debbie millman’s comment is:

>what is original?

the very first from which others are created or copied or borrowed.

original is more than opening eyes--it is finding and seeing something that wasn't there before.

to me, original is: (some of) the work of James Joyce, John Coltrane, Jackson Pollack, Albert Einstein, Virginia Woolf, Joni Mitchell, Muhammed Ali...

On May.07.2004 at 10:58 AM
Greg’s comment is:

No one's done it yet, so I will:


1 archaic : the source or cause from which something arises; specifically

2 a : that from which a copy, reproduction, or translation is made b : a work composed firsthand

3 a : a person of fresh initiative or inventive capacity b : a unique or eccentric person

So, according to Merriam-Webster, original means something that is copied, except in the case of #3, where it's referring to a person. But in my experience, original people are usually copied eventually too.

On May.07.2004 at 10:59 AM
Cory R’s comment is:


branding, (insert creative endeavor here),*

On May.07.2004 at 10:59 AM
graham’s comment is:

jonsel: Is it worth splitting this into "Original"

i don't think so, but post what you think and let's see what happens . . .

cory r: whilst the subject of degree work is interesting, let's think broadly here.

what does original mean to you?

what could it mean?

what should it mean?

and, also, lets think very narrowly:

which work in particular (examples) is original? why?

On May.07.2004 at 11:02 AM
Jason’s comment is:

I prefer the term fresh. Originality seems impossible.

On May.07.2004 at 11:18 AM
KM’s comment is:

It seems that all the 'definitions' that are being given here attach to the tangible. Originality is not riding the fence in either thought, mechanical or physical.

it is finding and seeing something that wasn't there before.

Agreed. Originality is happened upon and not just a conclusion.

On May.07.2004 at 11:26 AM
Tom Gleason’s comment is:

I think JonSel's distinction is very revealing and worth thinking about. The "new for you" small-o originality is what you elitists are constantly rallying against; just because some hick likes a swoosh doesn't mean it's Original. We're always on a search for Originality, and, whether possible or not, this searching has within it a desire to know everything that has been done, to know the world as a whole. This is not a useless desire, it's what drives modernism.

On May.07.2004 at 11:29 AM
Cory R’s comment is:

it is finding and seeing something that wasn't there before.

i.e. new perspectives. Not tangible.

Being remarkable, not satisfactory. Not tangible.

They can be applied to tangible things (designing materials, working on a thesis), however.

I think debbie did hit the mark.

On May.07.2004 at 11:32 AM
Michael Surtees’s comment is:

I'd offer that original is about doing something that isn't based on the familiar.

On May.07.2004 at 11:33 AM
Rick’s comment is:

Just a little off topic, I think it's a shame that often what is original is not what is acceptable. So many clients want what the other guy has. And I guess that's why this is design, not "art".

Nice call on Coltrane, Debbie. Now that was innovation and originality that was not acceptable without the benefit of hindsight.

On May.07.2004 at 11:34 AM
Greg’s comment is:

Tom G: "you elitists"

Be careful when you generalize, sir.

On May.07.2004 at 11:46 AM
Tom Gleason’s comment is:

I was teasing. ok, "we" elitists.

On May.07.2004 at 11:47 AM
kev’s comment is:

There's very little that's original anymore.

I find it funny that all of the people that Debbie mentioned have the quality of being famous, at least to some.

Isn't it possible to be original and be completely unknown? Does it depend that much on what other people think of you? If so, that seems to run counter to the definition of the word.

On May.07.2004 at 11:57 AM
KM’s comment is:

i.e. new perspectives. Not tangible.

Being remarkable, not satisfactory. Not tangible.

My point being originality not being noticed until executed into something tangible. And only then do we take notice of its physicality.

On May.07.2004 at 11:57 AM
KM’s comment is:

Isn't it possible to be original and be completely unknown?

Sure it's possible, but no one would ever know!

On May.07.2004 at 12:00 PM
kev’s comment is:

I think the more important question here is:

Can you set about to be original, or do you just have to be a bad-ass on your own?

My experience has been that if you're trying to be "original" or "fresh" or what have you, it will never happen.

You just have to do what you do well, and someone will like it, eventually.

On May.07.2004 at 12:05 PM
marian’s comment is:

My answer: Nothing / Everything

Because we live in the world and all of our experiences are informed by everything that has gone before, nothing is truly orginal because the seed of whatever it is must necessarily have come from something else.


Because we are all truly unique individuals, our influences and experiences must necessarily concoct an original perspective on everything we do. So that even when we copy we actually create an original interpretation that could have come from no-one else but ourselves.

Ouch, the pickets of this fence are quite pointy.

I think that both the quest for originality and the declaration of originality are misguided. It shouldn't matter whether it's been done before, only whether it is a good use of what has gone before.

On May.07.2004 at 12:16 PM
Greg’s comment is:


No offense taken. Elitism is a strong criticism in my book, and I read your post as though you were serious.


Really really well said. I like it.

On May.07.2004 at 12:30 PM
Tom Gleason’s comment is:

It's funny. You can't accuse someone of being elitist without implying that you're superior in some way. So it's really a very weak criticism.

On May.07.2004 at 12:38 PM
John’s comment is:


on the question of the possibility of being original, the important thing is to have a purpose for originality. There is nothing wrong with "traditional" or "old" if it still fulfills its purpose.

However in todays world with the ammont of design the average person sees, original is almost a prerequisite. You can hardly communicate a new message with an old design. At the very least the new communication will have shades of meaning transferred from its source.

On May.07.2004 at 01:09 PM
Armin’s comment is:

> It shouldn't matter whether it's been done before, only whether it is a good use of what has gone before.

I would like to second Marian's notion and follow with a very unglamorous description of what originality can be defined as today: something that fills a void.

There is nothing new under the sun, so originality must come in the form of taking whatever proverbiality is under said sun and restructuring it to become something new. For instance — and I don't mean this in any sort of self-promotional or inflammatory way — Speak Up and Design Observer. There is nothing inherently original about either of them (us, whatever): we didn't invent blogging, we didn't come up with the idea or the technicality of letting people talk back, we didn't come up with the idea of discourse, in terms of design I'm just pixelating old victorian ornaments and DO is… well, using a modified template. The originality comes in that we both fill a previously unfulfilled need for designers and other interested folk. Call it necessity, opportunity or dumb luck, originality is a mixture of all these.

On May.07.2004 at 01:25 PM
graham’s comment is:

paraphrasing george steiner from 'grammars of creation' (definitely worth a read);

'"is it impossible for us . . . to apprehend . . . existence without origination?"


"a rigorous understanding of mimesis (as in plato's republic) . . . knows only of re-creation. observe the pejorative inflection of this term towards playfulness . . . yet the counter-pulse of creation in the direct sense, of origination, is insistent . . . the paradox of creative reflexion could arise from distortion . . . an incapacity to see the world as it is."

and again;

"no art form, it can be argued, comes out of nothing. always, it comes after. modernism can be defined as an exasperation with this cruel fact of posteriority . . . an oedipal revolt against the father."

one more;

"the latin invenire would appear to presuppose that which is to be 'found', to be 'come upon' . . . this invenire is implicit in picasso's 'i do not search, i only find.' . . . yet the overlap between 'finding' and 'producing' or 'contriving' quickly becomes evident . . . the aura of 'feigning', of 'fabrication'. . . of 'contrivance', modulating into falsehood . . . both spheres are present: that of origination, production . . . (and) that of possible mendacity and fiction . . ."

On May.07.2004 at 03:58 PM
Jason’s comment is:

How can we define original without a context?

On May.07.2004 at 04:06 PM
graham’s comment is:

"How can we define original without a context?"

it would probably be impossible. perhaps a 'definition' of original might be 'that without context'. but then there would be nothing that is original. or would there?

but, to go back to the question:

what is original?

not so much a definition, more a meditation.

On May.07.2004 at 04:34 PM
Jose Nieto’s comment is:

Armin, I like your definition of originality, and I agree that it applies to Speak Up and DO. I would add that originality often is a matter of context. Take, for example, the master European poster artists of the late 19th and early 20th century: Cheret, Bernhard, Cassandre, etc. It is undeniable that they introduced a new graphic language to the Western eye -- and yet, it is also clear that they drew much of their inspiration from Japanese graphics of the 18th and 19th century. Their technique (flat colors, simplified forms, dramatic lines) was not original; its application to European advertizing posters was, however.

Ultimately, I believe that originality comes from having a broad base of knowledge and interest. Anyone who looks only at work produced in their field will almost certainly become an imitator.

On May.07.2004 at 04:54 PM
Royama’s comment is:

Originality is often a pleasant mistake.

But mistakes are often timely coincidences (those two words redundant?), and coincidence tends to occur more when accompaned by a broad base of knowledge...so I would agree that a broad knowledge of your surroundings breeds originality.

On May.08.2004 at 07:25 AM
Joy’s comment is:

I agree with Marian and what Armen went from there.

I'd like to say: (though I dono how much this has essentially already been said in preceding posts..)

The way we perceive someone being "original" depends on the context - what the "thinking mode" for the general public was at the time (affected by major events and common responses/memory recalled from them), what the person already knew, what "thinking pattern" he was used to using for most of his life [as we know it], etc - and how much of a "difference" was between the common thinking mode of the time and the solution.

If we were robots this would not be impressive; however we're not. The "difference" requires a lot of "mental flexibility" in us.

Though there indeed has already been a lot done in the past that are similar in pattern the thing is a person cannot just read everything in existence and pick the one with the best "pattern" of solution - there's just too many things in history to consider.

Inevitably they have to just think for themselves, using their brain to think about what the problem is [takes up 5% of brain] instead of going through everything that has already happened [100%+]. So when they do find a solution, and the solution required a lot of flexibility, we admire them. (kind of like sports - you admire how someone deal with mistakes [I'm thinking of rugby] because you know they have a limited time to react, therefore their reaction came from their brain/instincts, not the "general knowledge base".)

As to the thesis: a lot of times something "original" is the thing bothering you that you thought would be dismissed or be considered irrelevant. However if the thing bothers you, it probably bothers others too. (or if it doesn't it probably will cause problems for them in the future)

[ok unless you KNOW it is a problem specific to you - "I can't think cos i slept late last night, etc"]

And to mention s.t. Bruce Mau (and maybe others before him) said: our perception of the past doesn't stay the same. From my experience: I see something ('x') I really like. I'm designing/drawing and I really want to use/draw the same thing I saw. I feel "this is not very original, i'm just doing it cause i like this".

I see x again, and realize it isn't how I remembered it. I must have linked it to what I thought it was because I saw the possibility and quickly linked the two OR I saw what I wanted to see [and actually the two, psychologically, is similar.]

In the end, seeing what it was really intended to be made it less impressive. (I wonder if anybody relate to this?)


On May.08.2004 at 11:47 AM
Jeff G’s comment is:


Agreeing with Armin & Marian,

The most original we humans can be (so far) is the restructuring, reapplying, reforming of what already is. Things are more original the more fundamental the reforming is. e.g. The invention of the printing press was much more original than the development of direct to plate printing.

To be more original, remake things/ideas that are more fundamental.


I think one of the big reasons some clients don't want Original and that originality is often not appreciated in its own time is that originality is often not pleasant and doesn't work well. e.g. The original hand-pumped vacuum cleaner was far more original than my Dyson, but originality alone doesn't get my carpet clean. Originality + much refinement = a good end-user experience.

Originality is not for glory hunters (at least not the ones who want it while they are still alive). The glory that happens while one is alive is more often reserved for the refiners.


Tom, You can't accuse someone of being anything without implying that you're superior in some way.

On May.08.2004 at 03:21 PM
Omar’s comment is:

To visually communicate without direct engagement requires that the form presented reference an existing one which has already established the desired association/reference.

I see originality as a quality held by things which construct new associations/references. So original graphic design would be that which adds to the vocabulary of both designers AND consumers - giving designers one more direct connection to their audience.

On May.09.2004 at 10:59 AM
Armin’s comment is:

Like Graham mentioned earlier…I think it would be interesting to see examples of graphic design things, ideas, implementaions, etc. that we think are original. Web sites, logos, magazines, annual reports — whatever it is, link it. I'd suggest explaining why you think it is original, and let's try to be open before we throw tomatoes (no pun intended) at something we don't think is original.

I'll start with one: 5k.org. They have taken something annoying (a limit of 5kb) and turned into an opportunity for people to be highly creative. Many things are original unto themselves and stop there, this site encourages people to be original themselves and challenges them to come up with innovative ideas using the 5kb limitation.

On May.10.2004 at 08:56 AM
Armin’s comment is:

Another one: Underware's type specimen book for Sauna.

"Resistant to hot water in its steaming, gaseous state at a temperature of 120 degrees Celsius/248 degrees fahrenheit. Even better, some parts of the book can only be read inside a sauna at a minimum of 80 degrees Celsius/176 degrees fahrenheit! So get the book, go to a sauna, and get the "live" Underware experience while reading."

Again, they did not invent saunas, nor thermic-changing material (remember those t-shirts that changed colors when you sweated?) but combining these to promote a typeface… original.

On May.11.2004 at 09:03 AM
Jerry Reyes’s comment is:

(remember those t-shirts that changed colors when you sweated?)

Hypercolor shirts! I had two.

On May.11.2004 at 11:12 AM
Brady’s comment is:

What's interesting is that this discussion has pointed out to me that I don't judge artifacts by their Originality anymore. So much has been produced in history that brings a bias against originality.

That being said, originality can only be defined (a la Marian) by what we personally have experienced. Is there anything wrong with someone believing - based on their own experience - that some artifact is original because they have never seen anything like it before? I say this not to mean a knock off passing as the original but something that is inspired by something already created.

I propose that originality is defined by something that moves us beyond surface, which requires us to take notice, to study - beyond the shock of something supposedly 'new'.

Unfortunately, many of us in the creative profession can't be original and we are left with 'shock'.

Originality lays in the ability of, let's say for example, companies to produce an annual report that, once you strip the "dressing from the windows", does not duplicate the years before but succeeds at creating a new message - both visually and textually - each year. The Southern Company annuals (2003 specifically) produced by Lucid Partners and the IBM annuals (2000 and 2002 specifically) produced by VSA are consistently compelling in ways that go beyond the design to tell their story instead of same one the competition is telling.

Originality takes education, research, insight and ingenuity. It may seem ironic that these are the factors that can strip away originality because of their influence on experience, yet it is these factors that allow someone with skill to effectively utilize those influences in a manner and an environment such that an audience may never have seen those influences sneak into their sphere of experience. It takes skill because just doing something that has not been done in a particular market simply for the sake of doing it does not ensure it's success.

On May.11.2004 at 01:22 PM
M Kingsley’s comment is:

Show me something new and I'll begin all over again

- Erik Satie

On May.12.2004 at 02:33 AM
tim’s comment is:

My comments aren't so much about what "Originality" may or may not be, but more about application:

I find that when I purposefully strive to be ORIGINAL I lose sight of the goals of the project. Instead when I focus on creating the most-effective designs I can for the assignment at hand-- well, it may not be earth-shatteringly original or ground-breakingly innovative, but it makes my bosses happy (I work in-house) and I feel good with what I've produced.

On May.12.2004 at 07:58 AM
graham’s comment is:


On May.12.2004 at 08:05 AM
Armin’s comment is:

Silly… but I wouldn't call it original. Bunnies aren't that original. If they had taken it a step further by including rabbit-specific nuances (a true parody) rather than simply replacing the actors with bunnies it could be original. I can't believe I'm arguing a flash movie, I hate all those "funny" flash movies.

On May.12.2004 at 08:56 AM
Omar’s comment is:

I think there's a large amount of clever work being passed as original these days.

The work on 5k.org strkies me as being clever (that's not to say that it's being sold as original). The overall concept of the competition is what find to be original - if that.

It's no secret that limitation breeds innovation. It just so happens that certain surrogate systems of limitation are more susceptible to creative solutions than others. So most of the time, the real challenge/innovation/originality lies in developing a system for which interesting and creative solutions can be found. To me, 5k.org is just that.

On May.12.2004 at 10:29 AM
graham’s comment is:

how about this stuff?

On May.12.2004 at 12:26 PM
John Gordon’s comment is:


I think the bunnies are very original. No where does it say that originality has to take itself seriously.

On May.21.2004 at 04:57 PM