A few months ago I was at Circles Conference where I had a chance to join a panel of designers to talk about challenges we commonly face. One of the questions that intruiged me most was about the value of originality.

The question was:

a popular Picasso Quote says, “Bad artists copy. Good artists steal.” Do you find truth in this, if so how does it apply to your approach to creating?

Its a good question, and a difficult one, because honestly I believe it all boils down to context. The value of originality in your work depends on the context of your work.

A good way to approach this question is to ask another question: what is the goal of the work I am doing, and what is it’s primary value? From that context we can properly assess the value of any particular aspect of our work, and how it fits into the larger value of the work.

Because originality is, after all, just one particular aspect of our work that we must determine the point of, and the value of. Effectiveness, cost, appeal, longevity, scalability - there are many other aspects which all must be balanced together to create any successful work.

Is the purpose of your work to inspire people? Why? Is the purpose to inspire them to a particular action (e.g. marketing design), or just to inspire a feeling or sentimate which may be connected with something else (e.g. branding design)?

Is the purpose of your work to comunicate information (e.g. information design, service design)? Is it to facilitate interactions or behaviors (e.g. user experience design)? Is the purpose of your work to make a political statement (e.g. propoganda), or just to express emotion or ideas (e.g. fine art)?

Sometimes the value of originiateliy is critical to your overall objectives, and sometimes originality is extraneous to the point of your work.

As a designer I personally believe my work, purpose, and calling is to solve real problems. The problems come in many different flavors, and the solutions take many different forms. But it’s my responsibility to have the maturity and discernment to understand what the actual problem is I am trying to solve, and objectively let the pursuit of those solutions drive my decision making through every project.

For example, as a user experience designer, originality can actually be at odds with the goal I’m trying to achieve. Since the aim of my work is typically to faciliate workflows and user behaviors, utilizing commonly understood design patterns is typically a far more effective tool than inventing things users have not seen before, which can actually hinder people from being able to easily use the thing I create for them to use.

However, in the context of other creative work (marketing design, for example), originality can be a very important component because it aids the end goal, which is to capture attention or make people remember the message they saw.

Sometimes originality is a really valuable tool in the pursuit of a solution, and sometimes it’s a tool that plays only a supporting role, or no role at all. It’s your job as a designer to know the difference.

PS - I’m going to be speaking at Circle’s Conf’s sibling for people who make the web, Squares Conference, in March. You should come.