The Value of Unoriginality

I was reading a comment thread about a new iPad app the other day and saw one commenter make a critique about the website for the app. The site in question is very well made, but the commenter noted that they’ve seen many sites that follow the same design pattern. The commen­ter painted that in negative light, saying that while the makers of the site care about design, they obviously don’t care very much about creativity. This is a view I’ve often seen expressed, especially in the web apps industry where a lot of the sites are designed in the same manner.

But here’s the thing: what’s the value of being original? Oftentimes there is very little, and I would go so far as to say there is sometimes negative value in being creative. Where originality is concerned there are really two main benefits, one for the creator and one for the user. The creator who invents new design patterns and styles gets noticed by standing out from the crowd and so wins prestige and business, and the user gets the pleasure of experiencing something new. But these two benefits are not necessarily applicable for all projects, and when it doesn’t, being unoriginal carries its own benefits.

Owen Jones, architect and influential design theorist of the nineteenth century, suggested that art theories and styles should never be built without relying on past work and knowledge:

To attempt to build up theories of art, or to form a style, independently of the past, would be an act of supreme folly. It would be at once to reject the experiences and accumulated knowledge of thousands of years. On the contrary, we should regard as our inheritance all the successful labours of the past, not blindly following them, but employing them simply as guides to find the true path.

Owen Jones, The Grammar of Ornament

Jones is talking about historical techniques and styles, but the message applies just as much to our discussion about the styles we see today on the Web. What does it mean to be unoriginal? To be unoriginal is to build on what someone else has built before you. Instead of seeing past work as territory that has already been claimed, see it instead as your inheritance, for nobody has a monopoly on good design, and it benefits all when good techniques are learned and properly employed.

Nobody would complain about the use of design patterns in your work, but when we move towards more general layout trends and styles, some begin to disapprove. But styles are just like all the other design patterns in that they are specific configurations of color, contrast, shapes and other visual elements that work especially well together. Seeing those configurations and applying them to your own work gives you efficient means for making a design pleasing to the eyes of your users.

Borrowing styles this way is what drives style trends, but there is nothing to be ashamed of when following a style for what you are doing is simply applying an effective configuration of visual elements to your own specific context. Take a look at any architectural style before our times and you’ll see just how prevalent certain styles are, so much so that they define whole branches of architecture: Ancient Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Gothic, and so on. In the days before modern architecture, to be original was to build on past styles – to improve and develop them in subtle ways, rather than to start anew.

Our obsession with originality, which I wrote about here, means that we no longer value continuation as much as uniqueness, and so following design trends become something negative, something that betrays your lack of creativity. Where in the past, trends were design languages that defined cultures, they are now considered something that one bright individual creates and others – who are assumed to lack the skill to create their own style – simply follow. But there is no shame in following a style, for unless you are outright copying a work – which is not following a trend, for to do that properly you have to assimilate and apply the style to your own context, not merely copy – you are doing the smart thing by learning from others and making use of their knowledge and experience.

Yes, there are times when it pays to be original, for example, if you want to stand out as a designer or a brand, but that’s hardly a requirement for every project. Style trends are very noticeable on design communities like Dribbble. Some see this as a negative since it leads to a lot of work that looks alike. There is another way to look at it however, a positive perspective. All the designers on Dribbble who follow a trend are learning from it through practice. They are integrating a successful style into their design arsenal, and by doing so grow in skill and experience.

Some may argue that styles are less important than learning how to actually solve design problems – i.e. when and how to use designs patterns in user interfaces. That’s true, but that does not negate the inherent value of these styles, which is that they help create work that looks great and work that communicates a certain message or feeling; and having the skill to do that certainly benefits both the designer and the people who get to experience their work.

March 2012