Zachary Styles

Originality Doesn’t Exist

Read on my website

Very few things are truly original, but that’s not a bad thing. The successes of those around us are only the result of a multitude of failures and imitations on their part. You just don’t see them.

tl;dr

  • It’s okay to imitate
  • Imitation is how we grow
  • Copy to learn
  • Don’t be a dick

Quick Note

Originality is a fickle thing. Most people think they are original, but they rarely are. I include myself in this, as most of my career and interest in design and illustration is built on imitation and copying, with some spice thrown in along the way. But here’s the thing: all that matters is your intention and how you imitate.

As a disclaimer, this is a thought-exercise, so if there’s anything you disagree with or you feel I have incorrect, then, by all means, let’s have a conversation. I’m here to learn just as much as you. In the meantime, though, here’s what I understand:

It’s Okay To Imitate

When you’re in design school, what’s the first thing your teachers will tell you to do (in most cases) at the beginning of a project? “Before you start designing anything, show me your inspiration.” (Pay attention to that inspiration word, because it’s going to pop up time and again and it plays a key role in understanding where I’m going with this.) What do you then go and do? You go and see what other people have done so you can go about designing in a way that you know works. This is by no means all there is to designing something, don’t misunderstand me, but this is usually one of the steps.

Alright, I hear you guys who say, “I didn’t attend design school, I’m self-taught.” Fair enough, but good luck getting anyone to believe that everything you’ve created you plucked straight from thin air and it’s entirely ‘original.’ In my experience, very few things are original, especially in the design industry. All we do is iterate and rework before we add our own spice to the mix.

Imitation is how we learn. If we already knew everything and how best to do things then everything would be amazing, and by definition, everything would then be average and we’d be at square one again. Great design is achieved through iteration and experimentation, which I agree is original in its own right, but — and here’s that word again — your design process and outcome is always based on some kind of inspiration. We rarely design entirely from scratch, and why would we most of the time? If everything was designed entirely from scratch we’d have no measure to base the success of anything on.

Imitation Is How We Grow

We learn from those around us who have already succeeded. We don’t learn from failures unless they teach us how to succeed, indirectly. In the same way that we measure our success on what is around us and what has already worked, we also base our growth on that. We look at what we have designed and we measure it on what we designed before and how close it is to what our definition of success is externally. You can argue that success is an internal measure, but we don’t always get to design for ourselves. Sometimes we design for others (which is important otherwise we’d have no careers) and so it’s important to validate our work based on what the definition of success is externally.

We look at how others have succeeded and we base our approach on where we want to end up with respect to them. If you aren’t sure what I mean by this, then think of self-help books (which is a massively growing industry — especially during tumultuous times like these) and how we look to external authorities on how best to do things. We compare our processes to theirs and validate our success based on them. If that wasn’t something we do naturally, then that industry wouldn’t be as large and useful as it is. Bear in mind, however, that that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. The sooner we notice and understand what is inherent to our human nature, the sooner we can begin to use it to our advantage.

Use imitation. Use copying. I put a large emphasis on use here, because it should serve a purpose. Don’t ever imitate or copy for the sake of it. That’s something completely separate, and if you’re a competent designer then you’ll know exactly why that’s a big no-no.

It’s important to note, however, that imitation isn’t the only way to design, and it should never be the sole aspect of your design process. You should always try to make things as unique as you can, using your own skillset and particular design-inclinations, but it’s okay for a concept or a composition to be based on someone else’s. As long as what you create at the end of the day is yours in some form, then you’re good and you’ve learnt something.

Copy To Learn

There are three ways that people learn: listening, watching, and doing. Two out of three of those require the input of someone (or something) else. Note: while there are many learning styles, those are not the focus of this particular point, as I am referring to modes of learning and the traffic lanes that we utilise in order to get information outside of our brain now into our brain.

While doing can be considered by far the most valuable of these modes of learning, because they involve action and iteration on the part of the person learning, the other two (listening and watching) are usually where we start. After all, we do things that we are inspired by or motivated to do by the things that we listen or see from those around us.

We listen to podcasts and what our teachers, mentors and friends have to say to guide us and then we act on those things. Did we come up with those ideas on our own? No, they were given to us. We watch people do things that we want to do, or we watch people do things that we wish we could do. Then we try to do those things. Did we come up with them on our own? Did we sit in a secluded cabin in the mountains and meditate on what we imagine would be the best thing to do and then do it? Maybe, but what we imagine is usually based on what we’ve seen or heard others do. Very few things are truly original, but that’s not a bad thing. The successes of those around us are only the result of a multitude of failures and imitations on their part. You just don’t see them.

We copy because we don’t know how to do things, and so we do something in a way that someone else did them with the hopes that we’ll learn. This is how children learn to traverse the world, just as much as designers do. We’re just older children experimenting with similar toys. Every letter I’ve drawn is based on a letter someone else drew. I did it their way to learn the style and what works and doesn’t work, and then I figure out how to do it on my own in my own way. Every article I’ve written is inspired by the styles and articles of writers that inspire me. Every illustration I draw is based on a style that someone else did, because before I drew it I had no idea where to even begin. We don’t copy because we want to be assholes. We copy because we want to learn, because we don’t know where to begin so we begin where someone else left off, and then we make it our own.

It also doesn’t always matter where things originate from, but rather how they make people feel. If you create something and it falls completely flat, and someone else does the same thing and its success explodes, then maybe it wasn’t meant for you to create. It’s just a thought, but it’s something to consider. Think about how what you create impacts people (yourself included). That’s what’s really important in design and art, not always a name game of who made it first.

Nothing is ever a direct copy, if you pay close enough attention. Things may be similar, but they’re never exactly the same because they weren’t created by the same hand. They weren’t drawn with the same pressure or printed using the same ink, paper or fabric. Every iteration of something is its own version of that thing (which was likely borrowed from someone else). Everything that is ever created is a combination of the skills, experience and perspective of the creator, irrespective of that of the originator.

I remember hearing something once, and I can’t remember who said it (please tell me if you can reference it so I can pay credit where it is due), and it went something like this:

If someone copies your work exactly, then that style is no longer yours. It’s theirs now.

That sentiment still haunts me today, but it inspires me as well. It reminds me that even when we create things, inspired by others or not, if someone can copy it exactly then it doesn’t belong to you anymore because you didn’t grow from it. You have stayed exactly where you were when you created it, and that, my friend, is a terrifying thought.

Don’t Be A Dick

The last thing I’ll say on this originality isn’t real train, is something that needs to be said in order to fully understand where I’m coming from in this. Don’t be a dick. Copy to your heart’s content. Learn. Grow. Become better than you were yesterday. But under no circumstances is it ethically sound to copy something and not pay it the respect it deserves.

If you’ve created something directly inspired by someone else, then credit them for the original work. If you’ve used a brush that someone else created, don’t claim that you created it. It’s simple. If you made something, then own it. If you didn’t make something, then don’t.

Copy, imitate, learn, grow. But none of it matters if you don’t respect where it started. Understand that, and you’re golden; act on that and you’re bound to do incredible things.

Full-time designer, illustrator and lettering artist. Part time lecturer. Part time student. Experiencing the world through words, both written and drawn.