On Second Original Thought?

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 avoid.

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.

(time passes)

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 communication.

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 discovering otherwise.

About the Author: Jack Summerford founded Summerford Design, Inc. in 1978 after thirteen years with other design and advertising firms, eight of which were with Stan Richards and Associates / The Richards Group. He studied design at Washington University in Saint Louis, graduating from there in 1965. His work has been represented in the top design shows and trade publications, many design books and is included in the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institution, Brandenburgische Kunstammlugen Cottbus (Germany) and Musée de la Poste (Paris). Currently, Jack?s work is divided into design, mentoring and teaching (including mentoring at other design firms), and writing. He has written essays for Communication Arts, Graphis, Corporate Annual Report Newsletter (CARN) and is currently working on several personal writing projects. He has served the design community as a director of the American Institute of Graphic Arts at the national level and was a Founding Director of the first Texas Chapter of the AIGA. He is a past president and director of the Dallas Society of Visual Communications and recipient of that organization?s lifetime achievement award, The Golden Egg. Most recently Jack has served on the American Institute of Graphic Arts Medalist Committee. Steven Heller has said, "Jack Summerford is ostensibly a traditionalist whose work - though often underscored by humor - builds upon the basic tenets of modern design, while not always representing the old school approach".