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I recently ran across a 1997 journal
entry that read, “If you think you have an original idea, stop reading
or risk discovering otherwise.” Now, it appears, there is more we should
When I begin any assignment, I fiddle with the obvious, hoping to be the
first to state it, because obvious isn’t obvious until someone reveals
it. So, my first blog assignment was no different. I began with word
play and immediately came up with ”blahg.” Suspecting that I was not
first with the obvious, rather than consult past design and advertising
show annuals as I have for years (I’ve always tried to use shows for
confirmation more than inspiration), I went to Google. My originality
meter dropped to minus levels when I was faced with over 31,000
references, dating back to at least 2002 on the term “blahg.” Next?
“Bloggity, blog, blog” amassed 15,700 exposures. The result for “blahg”
was the same with or without quotation marks. “Bloggity, blog, blog” was
altered by a count of about 5,000 with the use of quotation marks. But,
who cares about a margin of 5,000 or so when 0 is the number you’re
after. I went from amazement to consuming depression. The thought that I
would never have another original one in my life (not that I’ve had
that many, but before there was at least hope) was more than I could
handle. The blog essay would wait.
Back to “obvious.” If obvious is being revealed more quickly than ever,
then clichés are being created just as rapidly thanks to the internet
and about a million television channels broadcasting incessantly. Thus
there is still hope for originality because, originality lies somewhere
in the midst of obvious and cliché. If the designer can hang around in
this neighborhood, the result can often be original and direct
Connection. Here is how it works. As mentioned, obvious isn’t
obvious until it is revealed, usually in the form of an original
thought, although, I suppose it could be argued that originality and
obvious don’t have to co-exist. It’s a “chicken-and-egg” thing. Keep in
mind that an original thought is original only at the moment of
revelation and only if the audience (of one or many) hasn’t already
thought of it. It’s an “if-a-tree-falls-in-the-forest-with-no-one-around” thing. After a time
(and exhaustive revelations), an original thought that has been rendered
obvious, may become a cliché. The cliché, in turn, may become a tool to
aid in the direct communication of an original thought so that this
thought might be revealed as obvious and one day become a cliché. (If
this were an email, you would find a smiley face right about there.
Cliché? But then, what is this article, if not a glorified email? :- )
If it appears that, when an idea becomes obvious, and when obvious
becomes a cliché, and when a cliché becomes part of an idea, is a timing
thing, it is.
In an effort to hone their direct communication skills, there is an
assignment I like to give students that deals with visual clichés and
their place in communication. The goal is to get them to use a cliché in
a fresh way. It all begins with a spewing of as many of these
recognizables as can be conjured. They spew, I record them on the
chalkboard in iconic fashion, and the result is a catalogue of clichés.
If the role of the designer is to make the obvious special, and if
nothing communicates better than the familiar, then the trick is to
either be the first to reveal the obvious or be the first to render a
cliché (see tool, former original thought and obvious) in a new light.
Or, both. When all this comes together, you have that “aha moment.” That
moment when the viewer sees the result, a moment when there appears to
be no better choice and declares, if not, “aha”, then “why didn’t I
think of that?” Connection.
From that same journal referred to earlier, I found another thought,
original or not. “Ideas are original about every fifteen years.” This
spawned what should have been my next journal entry, “Just what is the
life expectancy of an original thought?”
Life expectancy should not be confused with statute of limitations. Each
is part of two very different value systems. The first suggests that an
idea may, in time, be forgotten or overlooked, but that doesn’t absolve
us from looking for it in order to confirm what we think might be an
original idea. The second implies that given enough time it’s ok to take
someone else’s idea. Which it never is.
Go back 15 or 20 years in AIGA’s archives (for now, it appears that 4–5
years is as far back as you can go digitally), or dig out some musty
design or advertising annuals. See if you don’t run across a few
solutions that have taken a more recent iteration. This may or may not
be significant to originality, but it does lead me to believe that
either good ideas have inevitability and are not to be denied, or as
long as there is a new audience something can be original forever. Or,
someone is, dare I say, cheating.
After perusing the most recent 365:AIGA Year in Design, I
spotted countless visual clichés and a couple of typographic concepts
whose heritage can be traced to the late 1960s. In this game of
originality versus expiration dates, we older designers are at a
distinct disadvantage, as long as our memories hold out.
The designer’s quest for originality, indeed anyone’s quest for
originality, is endless and perhaps strewn with windmills, but that’s
why we do what we do. It is not enough for us to place type, photos or
illustrations in pleasing arrangements. We want more. We want an
original thought in there somewhere driving the choices. But, in today’s
world of too much information, too fast, if ignorance is absolution,
then if you think you have an original idea, don’t google, or risk
In case you didn’t notice, we’re already halfway through 2014. It’s time to turn and face the future—and design the one we want.
David Brin, the noted science fiction writer (and one of my favorites) wrote an article for Bloomberg six months ago describing how a new century doesn’t get started until about year 14. Brin and I must be on the same wavelength. A year ago, I asked AIGA’s executive director Ric Grefé...
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