Who cares about being original?

When designer Christopher Doyle issued a heartfelt plea for designers to ‘try to be new’ on Twitter it prompted an impassioned debate on the role of originality in creative work. CR talks to Doyle about what sparked the debate and his own views on whether it is still possible to be entirely original and, if so, why we should try

CR: What did the original tweet that sparked the debate say and what prompted it?

Christopher Doyle: The original tweet was ‘Designers, please please please fucking try to be new’. It was actually prompted by me having seen a piece of work that morning on Instagram that, in my opinion, was a very obvious lift of a piece of work we did for a photographer a few months ago [see below]. I am not a big fan of the name and shame. Design Twitter is already toxic enough. So that was just me was getting it off my chest by yelling into the void (which is a great book title for a retrospective on Twitter).

CR: On Twitter you said that “I literally lie awake at night worried about how original our work is. It’s a constant concern.” And also that “something has to be new. If not we’ve failed.” How do you ensure that work is original? 

It sounds so dramatic and exaggerated now.  I lie awake about lots if things, but this is definitely one of them. We regularly bin entire concepts if we feel they are too close to something we’ve seen. It’s almost always about how something looks. We have a series of quick check-ins we do if we find we are working on something that looks or feels familiar. Is it in the same category? Is it in the same territory? Is it recent work? If we feel like something is far enough away from what we are doing (category / territory / point in time) then we allow it.

The crucial part of the process, and this is what I tried several times to convey throughout that debate, is that you then have to bring something new to a project. If the visual style feels familiar (which is a common hurdle) then we make sure the verbal aspect or the thinking and ideas are new. And vice versa. If we find we are using a messaging structure or writing style that is not unique then we make sure the way it looks pushes as far into a new space as possible.

The golden goose for us is when we manage to have an idea or say something that feels completely original and we manage to make it look unlike anything else we have seen. It’s incredibly hard to do both very often. But I think you have to try. I was taught in my first job to dig and dig until you had an idea. A design idea to me is an original thought. An idea no one else has had. Otherwise how does the industry move forward? That’s why I don’t sleep.

Australian Design Radio (ADR) identity by Christopher Doyle & Co

CR: But do clients care about originality? Should they worry that Klein Blue has been used on hundreds of student projects and therefore rule it out for use on their corporate identity? Should they care that wiggly lines are so overdone? Or should they just care about the most powerful, effective solution to their organisation’s problem? 

I don’t think most clients do care, no. Which is alarming. You generally find clients are aware of their immediate peers, both in their industry and in their territory. The best clients want to run a mile from looking or feeling anything like their competitors and the worst ones want to stay as close as possible. There is safety in sameness.

Whether clients care about it or not, I believe creatives always should. It’s our responsibility to ensure we are giving clients a level of distinction. Use Klein Blue, go nuts – we’ve used it a few times – but it has to be used in conjunction with something new. Colour and typefaces are great examples. They are tools. There are colour combinations that have been on trend for years now, because they look incredible. We use them, everyone uses them. But we do our best to make sure what sits alongside them is new.

CR: Were you talking about identity design in particular? Or is that just the way the direction the debate ended up?

I wasn’t, no. I was just talking about design in general. It very quickly turned into a debate about logos. Which it always does. And before you know it someone is tweeting a screenshot of the Airbnb logo next to the Azuma Drive-in logo from 1975. Just ridiculous.

There are a finite number of ways to draw a simple, scalable A. And yes, it exists. It always gets me down when designers immediately assume something has been stolen instead of entertaining the idea that perhaps the same, simple line-work logo could be sketched the same way twice. The Airbnb branding is the perfect example of what I am saying. Yes, a similar logo exists (40 years ago for a completely different company) but everything else DesignStudio built around it felt new. The brand idea was new, the illustrations, the site design. There was originality there.

Unfortunately if all you offer clients are logos, then yes, there is a high possibility that what you’re presenting already exists, somewhere, at some point.

Sleeve for The Man Is Dead by The Jezabels by Christopher Doyle & Co

CR: In the debate on Twitter, a lot of people seemed to suggest that being entirely original is almost impossible – what do you think of that argument? 

I agree completely. I never intended that to be my point. What I meant, and what we have always aimed for, is to have every project, big or small have an element of originality to it. It could be a style of writing, the strategy or idea, or it could be the visual component. I never suggested for a second that every project, in its entirety, should be new. That’s an impossible task, especially when talking to broad audiences who need access to the work. But to just give up and say ‘everything has been done’ is just crazy. That just seems so defeatist to me.

I had several people tweet me Paul Rand’s quote about originality and statements like ‘everything is a remix’ and I understand that thinking. But it also feels like an excuse to me. I refuse to believe we are out of completely new ideas. I think you can look at our work and see all kinds of influences and reference points. But I would hope that alongside all of that there is some original thinking and ideas, especially verbal ones, that have never existed before. We don’t always achieve it, but we try.

CR: Do you think graphic designers worry too much about originality compared to other areas of culture? Music, for example, constantly references and reinterprets, as do fashion and film. Why does graphic design seem to have a problem with that? Why is ‘looks like this’ seen as a problem rather than building on what has gone before in a positive way?

I don’t think we worry enough. Music is a great comparison. You always hear guitarists say ‘learn the major chords and you’ll be able to play a thousand songs’ and it’s true. There are hundreds of famous songs that use the exact same chord structures. But on top of that there are new words, stories, messages. It is exactly the same for fashion and film. Artists use what’s available and what has come before as a base but add a layer of originality. If they don’t, they get called out for it. The greater the layer of new thinking, the more celebrated and ‘innovative’ the artist is. That’s how I feel about design.

I have no issue with using the same tools and conventions all designers do, but on top of that there needs to be new thinking. If all we create is combinations of things that already exist then we are failing. It’s incredibly difficult. And not something we always achieve but that’s the goal.

Brand identity for motion studio Never Sit Still by Christopher Doyle & Co

CR: Did it worry you that most designers seem to think that ‘brand’ is all about logos? What does that say about some designers’ lack of awareness or sophistication in terms of their role?

I think there will always be designers who think brand is a logo. And that’s fine. For a lot of small clients the logo is all they can invest in and it’s an important tool. It is their brand. I love a good logo. And sometimes it’s the only thing we get paid to do.

But it’s incredibly hard to create a simple mark these days that hasn’t existed before. Especially with letterforms. Identity has gone through such an interesting transition over the last ten years. We went from ‘how will it fax?’ to looser, varied identity systems. Static logos weren’t cool. Systems and variation were cool. Now everyone wants their Airbnb logo. Identities still need to move and have variation but they also need to compete on the home screen within tiny squares. Simplicity, colour and scalability are so important. The app icon is the new ‘how will it fax?’

CR: What else concerned you about the debate that you initiated? 

Generally just the lack of hunger and drive to make new things. It struck me afterwards that I was debating the importance of originality with a group of people who all call themselves creatives. Creativity, to me, is to make something new. Isn’t that what we all want to do? I’m not suggesting we get there every time, or even that often. But we have to try. I don’t want to be a re-mixer. I want to be a maker.

Christopher Doyle is Director of Christopher Doyle & Co, an independent creative company based in Sydney. He tweets @CD_and_Co

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  • kevin Blackburn 11/09/2017 at 11:00 pm

    As a designer, if you’re not striving to create something original and meaningful your really not doing your job. The desire to explore, combine, mix and shift a variety of ideas and styles should be what drives you and get’s you out of bed in the morning.

  • Design Adult 09/09/2017 at 10:09 am

    This is rich coming from a designer who has publicly had his own issues with originality in his work.

  • r z 08/09/2017 at 10:19 pm

    Image 1 under the first question: I had to stop to comment on the periods. There has become a proliferation of periods on titles/headers/subheads recently that don’t belong there. In this case, there’s a period after the person’s name. NO! Please folks, please don’t do this. Our societies and languages and learning of the past are becoming “dummied down” as more people populate the graphics industry. The basics of good design and text punctuation need to be upheld. This is becoming a design style and. it. just. looks. stupid. I see this usage and I shake my head. I don’t consider it progressive, rather, I consider it juvenile. Thanks for letting me comment.

  • Wade Milles 08/09/2017 at 7:28 pm

    When he talks about Airbnb logo ripoff:
    “It always gets me down when designers immediately assume something has been stolen instead of entertaining the idea that perhaps the same, simple line-work logo could be sketched the same way twice.”

    But when it comes to his poster design :
    “a very obvious lift of”

    Sorry but this is just hypocrisy.

    I haven’t seen the lift of but his poster design is very trendy and generic. One could easily say the same thing for his design; simple and basic layout work could be sketched the same way twice.

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