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How to Be Original

How to Be Original

Christopher Simmons

The merit of originality is not novelty; it is sincerity. - Thomas Carlyle

Being original

As designers, we are constantly tasked with being novel, unique, original and new. This expectation places a tremendous burden on us — a burden that becomes even greater when we consider the familiar admonition, “Everything has been done before.” As I teach and as I work I often find myself and my students paralyzed by these contradictions. Overcoming that paralysis has been critical to my practice as a designer. Helping my students overcome it is central to my focus as a teacher.

My own teacher (and mentor and former boss), Doug Akagi, once described a designers as explorers and told his students, “You must go beyond what you already know. This is called exploring.” That statement may seem obvious, but if you stop to think about it it is actually quite profound. First, it presupposes a desire to grow and to explore. Second, it acknowledges that we are defined (read: limited) by the geography of our own experience and challenges us to expand our limitations through firsthand experience. To me this gets to the heart of what it means to be original. It removes novelty from the equation and puts the emphasis squarely on sincerity. It Suggests that being present in a process will lead to honest, personal (and therefore unique) results. It liberates me from the burden of needing to be new, and eases me into a comfortable relationship with the practice of creativity.

For my next few posts, I’m going to share a variety of methods for being original. These are techniques, ideas and philosophies I’ve collected over the years — some from reading, some from listening, and many just by doing. The first is from my friend John Bielenberg:

Think Wrong

John Bielenberg uses the term “thinking wrong” to describe a way of problem solving that disrupts heuristic bias. A heuristic approach is essentially one of trial and error (also called experimentation). Experimentation is useful method of creative research, and though it can be slow its also the most likely to lead to unexpected solutions (teabags, artificial sweetener, x-rays and post-it notes were all famously invented or discovered by accident). The problem with the trial and error method is that our brain prefers order to randomness. As a result, many of our thought processes are literally hard-wired. This is what allows us to perform common functions without “thinking” about them. Typing, walking and tying your shoe are some examples. These are all learned behaviors that allow us to function on auto-pilot. Learned behavior patterns make our lives easier, but they can also limit our thinking. Thinking right is putting one foot in front of the other and it will usually get you where you’re going. Thinking wrong, according to Bielenberg, is walking sideways; it’s more likely to take you someplace unexpected.

As you think about the steps you normally take to solve a problem, try replacing one or ore of them of them with something random or introduce an artificial constraint or requirement. Here’s an example Go to your bookshelf, and pick up the seventh book from the right, open it to page seven and pick the seventh word. What if that word had to be a part of your solution? There’s no rational reason for it, but the element of randomness may help disrupt your typical problem solving process. The books on my bookshelf are organized by color, so the seventh book was Steven Heller and Mirko Ilic’s “The Anatomy of Design.” The seventh word on page seven was “Kalman” Much of Tibor’s legacy lives on in the person of Stefan Sagmeister, who once worked for Kalman at M&Co. Sagmeister introduced the idea of heuristic bias to John Bielenberg after reading a book by Edward de Bono. These ideas have largely shaped Bielenberg’s philosophies on “thinking wrong” and were the inspiration for this article. See how easy that is?


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