A Search for Originality

A Pondering by Scott Thomas

The concept of originality seems to be a struggle for me. As a designer, I strive for originality. As a UX person, I look for conventions and best practices, and as a developer I hope that there is already a solution. Even in the era of open source, as creators we still yearn for a feeling of achievement through the recognition of originality in our work. Probably like many of you, the quest for ingenious, spontaneous creativity consumes many hours of conversation and thought. Pushing our process, and consistently demanding more. But why do we seek originality if those we regard as monumental figures of invention such as, Benjamin Franklin say it's "the art of concealing [our] sources." In an attempt to distinguish our ideas from the crowd we work to cultivate unique styles, break through the walls of convention, and establish legal concepts to turn our "originality" into ownable property. Yet to actually accomplish this feat is speculative.

Looking at history, we see inventors simultaneously spawn original works of striking similarity. We find our cultures debating the the origins of our most coveted discoveries. Arguably the most important discovery of the modern era, fueling the Age of Enlightenment, can be attributed to none other than a German blacksmith, Johannes Gutenberg for his creation of the printing press. But upon deeper examination history uncovers his device though a novel technological feat, was not likely his original invention considering the Chinese and Koreans were printing books centuries before his birth. Similarly, the story of the light bulb starts some 80 years before Thomas Edison when a British inventor Humphrey Davy, demonstrated the electric "arc" lamp to the Royal Society. The printing press and the light bulb show that no idea in design or invention spontaneously occurs in a vacuum. Rather its coupled and linked through the infinite chain of cause and effect.

Many times in my life I've become crippled by the idea of my work needing to be respected, admired, and regarded for its uniqueness. I felt the need to break through the plane of existence and ride high above the clouds in some proverbial stratosphere where the Gods of original creation play. But when reality comes crashing down I recognize my brilliant idea is not so original – it has already been uncovered by the race of mankind. It's often a heartbreaking discovery, leaving me unconfident, unaccomplished, and unmotivated to finish what I set out to complete. But as Antonio Gaudi, the master architect of La Sagrada Familia, one of most elaborate construction projects in history, remarked "originality consists in returning to the origin." By looking back at the creations of our ancestors will we somehow uncover the mystery of a truly original incarnation?

To understand this conundrum better I traveled halfway around the world, where I discovered the oldest zen temple in Japan, Kennin-ji. Kennin-ji possessed zen qualities in every way, with meticulously manicured rocks, delicate composition, and hand-carved wood joints. It was easy to become mesmerized by its very nature. A traditional Japanese rock garden called, Circle, Triangle, Square sits central in the temple, embedded with a lesson from the calligrapher and abbot Sengai Gibon. The circle represented the infinite without beginning and without end, the triangle represented the beginning of all forms, and the square (made by a double triangle) stands for the process of duplication. These are the basic forms we manipulate and repurpose to form everything in our world. This was such an important distillation of our work as designers, developers, creators, and innovators in search to find originality in our work. In essence this lesson spoke of working from the same components, an identical starting point, and often a similar objective, to improve our life and the lives of others.

This allowed me to understand something very basic about our search for originality. Though we are using the same components (applications, frameworks, typefaces, and symbol sets) the expression of how we independently view the world is revealed in our creations. Whether you believe "less is more" or "less is bore" we still work from the same kit-of-parts. We are building off of the same collective knowledge mankind has constructed. This has never stopped the greats from innovating. The pressure to be truly original is a squander of time considering, to be original is an abstraction, similar to being perfect or perfectly simple. It is something we can constantly pursue but never achieve. Yet through the practice of attempting to be original we open up our mind to the limitless possibility of those most basic forms and we participate in grand evolution of our species. Let's not let being original slow us down. Keep seeking. Keep creating.