Originality in Design: Lessons from the Leaning Tower of Pisa

A few weeks ago we received an unprompted comment that some of our work was “a bit anonymous”. How intriguing! After investigation our generous, proactive commenter went on to display some archetypal errors in design philosophy, that I have been guilty of myself. Shortly afterwards I visited the leaning tower of Pisa and it struck me as a useful analogy that could guide us away from pervasive and unhelpful views about originality that are common in our digital design community.

So what can we learn about good design from the tower?

1. No amount of individuality will save your work from its uselessness

If we judge design quality based on individuality alone, we are left in a situation where we might conceivably determine that the leaning tower of Pisa is good design. You would be mistaken if you thought the leaning tower of Pisa was good design. It’s popular, it’s iconic, it’s individual, but it’s not good design. In fact, it’s dangerous and completely empty.

Why? Well, it’s widely recognised around the world and put Pisa on the map, but that still doesn’t make this tower useful to those who paid for it to be made. It was meant for something else entirely.

2. Success is contextual

The creative brief sets the parameters of success. Unless we know what the client requires, we cannot determine the effectiveness of the design; we can only determine how well it communicates to us on an assumed, arbitrary purpose. It’s great if design work can benefit those outside of the remit of the brief, but to divert the purpose entirely is bad design. Because the design process involves compassion and empathy from designer to client, we need to judge it with the same attitude.

It is conceivable that a “cool” contemporary design might be shared fervently across all the creative blogs and receive critical acclaim, while remaining entirely useless to the client who needed to communicate “cool” to an audience of old-age pensioners. So we should keep this in mind when judging design quality – the importance of context.

3. Originality is not always the goal

The designer does not (necessarily) pursue pure creativity, that is the role of the artist. Instead we serve the requirements of the client using the creative process and our expertise. If the architect of the leaning tower aimed to create something iconic then he surely succeeded, but that still wouldn’t make him a good designer. That makes him lucky. He could also call himself a commissioned artist if it suited…or an egomaniac, but not a good designer.

4. Distinguish between tools and trends

It’s helpful to ask ourselves “what is appropriate?” rather than “have I seen this before?” This way we can establish the difference between the tools of our trade (which, for graphic designers are useful visual cliches) and trends, which are purely ornamental. They both have their place, but trends are generally concerned with lazily applied ornamentation and not meaningful visual cues.

For example, the typographer using ultra-tall lettering in a film-poster is no less skilful than the writer who uses full stops at the end of sentences. It’s not just the tools we use, but how and where we use them that gets at the quality of design.

5. The pursuit of individuality leads to perfectionism, lets avoid it

When we are concerned with reaching concepts of perfection, it doesn’t leave any room for growth or dynamic, progressive thinking. After all, when something is perfect, the only way it can change is to get worse. But where does that leave those projects that require the inclusion of third-party artwork? Or projects that are essentially brand updates? And what do we do with projects that display creative excellence using the tiniest budget? Can none of this design be called good or creative?

Consider the award-winning work of GDS on gov.uk who proudly declare that “service design is never finished, nor should it ever be” (Amy Whitney). GDS are a great example of where a focus on establishing and answering the brief, creates designs that match the uniqueness of the brief.

C.S.Lewis put it this way:

“Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.”

This gets at the heart of what I have learned: that the purpose of creativity is not originality, but expression. It just so happens that when we express ourselves well, it tends to be original. And good design expresses the clients’ message just so.

Are you with me? Have you found this to be true? I’d love to hear your thoughts on Twitter @fiascodesign.

Warning: Undefined variable $postID in /www/fiascodesign_482/public/wp-content/themes/fd/parts/old-post-content.php on line 58

2 Mins

The Quiet Life: Why Medium offers a contemplative alternative to the myriad of online publishing platformsI’ve always been a fan of design that’s simple. Design that concentrates on the essential aspects and ignores superfluous non-essential elements to communicate an idea or function. “Good design is as little as possible,” as Dieter Rams famously put it. A couple of years ago ‘flat design’, a web design approach that focuses more on […]

2 Mins

In the Net: This week fonts, a historical identity, passport design and hovering islandsThis week we travel across the pond to bring you Thomas Heatherwicks incredible plans for a floating island in New York City and the identity for the World Trade Centre. Whilst back in europe we find Norway’s beautiful passport designs and Sweden’s very own national typeface aptly named ‘Sweden Sans’. Enjoy.  Thomas Heatherwick’s hovering island […]

2 Mins

In the Net: Typofun this week! Type Genius, Aerial Bold, Google and a clever new font for dyslexics.This weeks In the Net is a full of typographic goodness. It includes a beautifully designed printed takeaway by Manual Creative, web tools to help you find the best type combinations and a new typeface designed to help dyslexics read faster. Enjoy.   Google Material design Google recently rolled out a new visual language across […]

2 Mins

In the Net: Videos galore! Featuring Okay Go’s epic new video, an IKEA halloween and the 2014 John Lewis Christmas AdWhat a week! It’s lively in the studio here, and I bet it has been for you too. During all the hubbub, here’s what we caught from the noise on the world wide web this week. Okay Go — I Won’t Let You Down Well and truly getting away from the small-scale, but intricate affairs […]

In the net

< 1 Mins

In the Net: This week Hoverboards, FKA Twigs X Google Glass and a library-based love storyThis week In the Net a charming new music video from film producers CANADA, the worlds first Hoverboard on Kickstarter and FKA Twigs directs and stars in a new concept film for Google Glass. CANADA music video for Verkeren The super cool Barcelona-based filmmakers and producers do it again with this library-based love story for Spanish […]

canvas conference

3 Mins

Canvas Conference 2014: The stories behind the brandsThis years Canvas Conference promised to deliver “the stories behind the worlds most interesting digital products and services” and it delivered healthily. Full of insights into the workings and design ethos behind the likes of BBC iPlayer, AirBnB, Google Maps and Spotify; here’s a short round-up of what we took away from the whole day. […]

2 Mins

In the Net: This week Kano, Urthecast and the brilliant new Hiscox AdThis week we take a look at the lego-like simplicity of the new children’s computer Kano, a thought-provoking website about the effects of Altzeimer’s and the making of the new Hiscox ad featuring famous faces. Kano Hearing their talk at this weeks Canvas conference made converts of us all. This easy-to-use and beautifully designed hardware […]

Git hub 1

3 Mins

Git: What it is, why we use it and how it differs to Github.For any developers reading, this will be a fairly straight forward question to answer and, thus, presumably will also be well versed in the commands used to operate Git. But for most its a bit of a grey area or a jargon filled, mine field of technical expressions and assumed prior knowledge. So I’ll try […]

mike bennett

< 1 Mins

We welcome in Mike Bennett as non-executive directorWe’re thrilled to be able to announce that we’ve appointed Mike Bennett, entrepreneur and co founder of the hugely successful digital agency e3, as non-executive director. We’re over the moon to have Mike join our team. He has demonstrated countless times that he has the knowledge and track record of successfully growing creative businesses. Having access […]

3 Mins

The Airbnb redesign: It’s time we looked at logos differentlyWhat more can possibly be said about the Airbnb redesign? In my view, the heart of the matter has still not been dealt with. Lets back up a bit. Two weeks ago a fiasco erupted in response to the latest brand update for the global apartment rental service Airbnb, designed by London based agency DesignStudio. […]

4 Mins

Better together: How to make the most out of collaborating with othersCollaboration is a key part of any design studio or creative project whether it be designers working with developers or working alongside clients to achieve the objectives of a project. But collaboration doesn’t have to be just the combination of individual skill sets. In my experience some of the most interesting ideas have arisen when […]

4 Mins

Between the sheets: Falling back in love with the printed wordI’ve always loved magazines. Since I was young enough to remember, spending money on magazines has been a bit of a hobby of mine and over the years I’ve built up a huge collection of varied titles, most of which are boxed up and are unlikely ever to see the light of day again. It’s their tangible […]

3 Mins

A Note to My Former Self, Aged 21  I am currently taking part in the West of England Design Forum (WEDF) Design Buddy scheme which is a unique mentoring opportunity set up to help third year graphic design students studying at Bath Spa University. It is a brilliant way to not only inspire the next generation of designers, but to also share with […]