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.

Do you have a project in mind?

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