Two words: original and creative

hankzane's picture

Two words: original and creative. People like to throw around with them. What do they mean to you?

We can start with me. My internal dictonary says
• original - so old it's new
• creative - random

Norbert Florendo's picture
  • original -- idiot thief
  • creative -- thief savant

Yes, I'm old, but I'm original & creative!

ebensorkin's picture

• Original - Something that *you* ( or I ) have never seen before.
• Creative - Being willing to crash & burn - an intuitive risk taker.

Something tells me you want to be reductionist about this though... That seems like it's your MO. Sergej, Can you not cite *anything* that has ever seemed creative or original to you? Really?

ebensorkin's picture

Norbert, how about you? All this belittling of the two words may be clever or witty but is it useful? ( Apart from at parties ).

Paul Cutler's picture

Original - the ability to see through the veil of agreed upon reality - like when DaVinci looked at a dragonfly and saw a flying machine, not an irritating insect
Creative - the ability to expound on such observation - it became a helicopter design


dezcom's picture

original — first occurance (that you know of)
creative — spontaneous fusion of the seemingly unrelated into something original


Norbert Florendo's picture

There is no belittling here!
Let me unveil inner meanings:

  • Being original means you weren't aware that you stole it.
  • Being creative is being intensely aware of the theft.

We process then reprocess.
Yes, I'm old, but I reprocess in style!

dezcom's picture

"...All this belittling of the two words may be clever or witty but is it useful?"

Actually, I thought Norbert was being creative :-)


hankzane's picture

Eben, I don't want to be a reductionist in this regard, but it's something I have to be if I am to stand a chance of understanding the meaning in a million of different contexts that other people use these words in. Personally, I avoid using them to describe things. While we could take the discussion in this direction, for now I just wanted everyone to put their cards on the table.

I don't understand why you think I can't cite anything as being creative or original. There are many random and seemingly new things/actions. In fact, they are everywhere. I just prefer not to cite them as such.

ebensorkin's picture

Your right. He is.

Actually I basically agree. What Norbert says is true. It may not be the whole truth though.

I have to admit I hold out hope that real originality is possible. It seems like I have seen it. Maybe I just don't know enough history. QUITE POSSIBLE. Impossible to prove either way. It's therefore quite a useful idea to toss around at parties.

Not that Norbert definition isn't true too...

Creativity should very probably consist mostly of being intensely aware of of the shoulders you stand on - but again it seems like a little reaching higher aught to be encouraged.

On the other hand, the overworship of both words in the last half of the last century should give rise to a certain amount of critique.

Norbert Florendo's picture

Eben -- joking aside, I have for several decades pondered originality and creativity and take it very seriously.

To me it is not understanding the meaning, that means I am on the outside, an observer.
For me it is to understand the process, that means I am on the inside, a contributor to the greater whole.

Therefore, as a process:

  • To be original is to forget everything you know down to the last cell.
  • This is how Bucky Fuller and Albert Einstein gave us what was never known before.

  • To be creative is to assimilate, regurgitate, reassimilate, then reassemble.
    This is how Bethoven and Matisse contributed to the collective whole.

Yes, I'm old, but I'm back in style!

William Berkson's picture

I think one of the confusions about creativity and originality is that it is possible to be creative and original and boring or weak or useless. For the originality to be significant the problem needs to be important and the solution actually good, and not only original. In the arts there is a lot of misguided straining after originality, with weak results. Originality gives a spice of interest, but is by no means the only important thing.

timotheus's picture

Well put, Norbert!

ebensorkin's picture

Nicely put Norbert & William!

William Berkson's picture

> To be original is to forget everything you know down to the last cell.
This is how Bucky Fuller and Albert Einstein gave us what was never known before.

Um, false.

My book 'Fields of Force' gives an account of Einstein's invention of Special Relativity. The most important thing is that he looked at the problems of physics in his day in a new way. He schooled himself in the ideas of the greatest physicists of his day, as well as the problem situation. He had the brains and discipline to find good solutions, but the most original thing was in the way he conceived the problem.

He by no means forgot everything.

ebensorkin's picture

What does Nick Shinn think about this? He has been pretty eloquent.

parker's picture

To be creative is the ability to connect everyday life that on the surface appears to have no connection.

e.g. Picasso - and his sculpture (ready made) Head of a Bull (1942) -- bicycle saddle + handlebars.

People (or other artists) new about bicycle, bicycle saddle etc etc - but he was the first one to do it.

That is why he was Original.

even you know that you want to be a graphic designer -- it is important to have a rounded education; to read not just about graphic design, but anything and everything.

Norbert Florendo's picture

You are right, Eben.
It only means I need to ponder longer.

For our amusement:
"The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources."
"The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education."
"Imagination is more important than knowledge."
"Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one."
"Gravitation is not responsible for people falling in love."

From the Collected Quotes of Albert Einstein
Copyright: Kevin Harris 1995 (may be freely distributed with this acknowledgement)

Yes, I'm old, but I'm back in style!

William Berkson's picture

Norbert is your source the um ever-reliable: internet?

I would be willing to bet money that the first and fourth quotes Einstein never said.

hankzane's picture

“Gravitation is not responsible for people falling in love.”

I have my reservations about this one ...

Nick Shinn's picture

I don't find much call for originality or creativity in typography these days. That's probably the norm, and the new typography of the digital era, pre-Millennium, the exception.

My more innovative faces don't sell as well as the conservative ones. The"new alphabet" typeface Panoptica is a case in point. This is an original and creative design-- a monowidth unicase alphabet, drawn from scratch, in seven typeface genres -- that enables typographers to do new kinds of typographic layout.

But as Eben says, is it useful? Apparently not, people seem to be more interested in smooth retro styling. Fonts is a fashion business, as Phil Martin says.

We call those who rework other people's typefaces "designers". But there's nothing creative or original in that, so surely it can't be design?

Norbert's use of the term "thief" is, sadly, typical of the post-modern era, and the way that "recontextualizing" has so much more cred than starting from scratch, with the assumption that all art is theft, but that's OK, because originality isn't possible, or is irrelevant.

Parker's description of the dynamic model of creativity is the classic explanation by Arthur Koestler, in Act of Creation.

dezcom's picture

For me, the problem is that creativity and originality are not something you can consciously attempt to do. I think you just "do" whatever it is you do (physics, type design, whatever) and if you become immersed in the problem you are attempting to solve in a naive way passing no judgment on your thoughts, that you allow the opportunity for creativity or originality. That does not mean you will succeed, it just means you made success a possibility rather than an impossibility. The worst thing a person can do is set creativity or originality as a goal, even as a priority. It is better to free yourself from the burden of judgment and allow your thoughts to interact. While you are working, just work. Allow others to pass judgment later after you are done. There are plenty around who would rather pass judgment on your work that do work of their own. If you design something and get value out of the experience of doing it then it does not matter what others may say about it. This is not the same as sales or business. You can do mundane stuff that sells well but is not fulfilling to you. You do have to pay the bills after all. Push the envelope to fuel yourself when you can though. Even though Nick's Panoptica is not a big money maker for him, I will bet he is still glad he designed it.


hrant's picture

Nick, you just realized now that cultural progress and capitalism are opposed?


Nick Shinn's picture

>The worst thing a person can do is set creativity or originality as a goal

I'm afraid I have to differ from your philosophical approach Chris. Surely one can have a practical strategy for originality:
Work from scratch and don't use "off-the-shelf" raw materials like stock images and bundled fonts. Mess with your software defaults (eg H&J settings) and avoid filter pre-sets. To be really original, comission a custom typeface, or like Erik von Blokland, make your own design software tools.

Nick Shinn's picture

>Nick, you just realized now that cultural progress and capitalism are opposed?

I haven't a clue what you're talking about.

hrant's picture

Panoptica simply can't sell well because it's culturally progressive.


paul d hunt's picture

We call those who rework other people’s typefaces “designers”. But there’s nothing creative or original in that, so surely it can’t be design?

"That thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done; and there is no new thing under the sun." Eccles. 1:9

everything is composed of things that already exist. the genius is in how you combine the already exisiting things into something that feels new and fresh and exciting. that's what you did for panoptica, nick. the latin alphabet isn't new. monowidth fonts aren't new. unicase fonts aren't new. the seven genres you chose to apply to these designs aren't new. but when you put them all together you have something that is original and definately creative.

case in point: i love Storm's work because everything he does has a little bit of his flavor in it. even his revivals are vibrant to me because of this.

Norbert Florendo's picture

"You must unlearn all that you have learned."
-- Yoda

"When I'm working on a problem, I never think about beauty. I think only how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong."
-- R. Buckminster Fuller

If we as a community hope to contribute through original and creative solutions, we should use this topic to expand our concept of glyphs and visual language. Communicating visually through glyphs should be the core issue, and not, "How can we make these OLD letters look NEW?".

Visual language is now ephemeral, like smoke signals or sky writing. It's there, then it's not. If there was ever a time for innovation, creativity and originality in displaying language visually, it's now. And I don't mean producing fonts for digital devices, I mean giving new meaning to glyphs or creating new ones.

#, * and @ are now part of our daily language, and they were given new meaning by engineers. At one point in the development of writing, "et" became or morphed into "&", and it was a scribe or calligrapher who initiated it, thus giving meaning to a new glyph.

My point to you all is if we are to be original and creative, we better start moving up the food chain and become part of the decision making team. Otherwise type designers and typographers will still have to clean up the crap produced by others.

Yes, I'm old, but I'll be BAAHK!

paul d hunt's picture

"There is no such thing as visual language."
--John Hudson

if you want to revisit that discussion, it is now here but some comments are missing, namely those by the thread's author, the lovely miss tiff.

bieler's picture

This type of question generates the kind of pointless nonsense that made TYPO-L a very small and irrelevant listserv. The definitions of original and creative are in the dictionary.


Joe Pemberton's picture

A comment on originality...
I can't stand it when you're being critiqued and your client only has enough design vocabulary to point out that it reminds him/her of some other brand or some other thing - no matter how distant the comparison. It's like they can't evaluate it on their own, but only in reference to things they've seen... It's like calling a tostada a "Mexican pizza" which is insulting to both tostadas and pizza.

(You've all heard them: the purple reminds them of Taco Bell, that font reminds them of Citibank, the square logo is just like Amex, etc. etc.)

parker's picture

off topic --

"...that font reminds them of Citibank"

here's a little story (i don't know if this story is accurate, too accurate or not but...)

Citibank + Travelers merged. They called in a designer to their new logo for the merged identities. They met and talked for a long time.

The designer listened to everything,and after two minutes created the new logo (the red hemispheric slash).

the designer gives them the bill, and....

Client: "This is a ridiculous amount of money to charge, it took you like two minutes to come up with that logo".

Designer: "No, it took two minutes plus 16 years".


mmmm...or maybe not off topic. maybe that designer is creative and original

ebensorkin's picture

I like the new direction this thread is taking - now there is talk about what is important to us instead of the sheer reductionism of the initial post.

The only reason I gave Norbert any shit before about his witty remarks ( they were witty ) is that I felt that there was a hint of what Nick is talking about in his remarks about “recontextualizing”. I felt like there was a sense in his quotes that all effort towards originality were folly. I see now that that wasn't quite what he meant but that was what I was reacting to. Sure, there is plenty of folly in what we do, but we have to get used to that & keep going anyway.

Re-reading Nick's post, (Thanks Nick! Sweet post again ) Despite enjoying his ideas in gerenral, I found myself I feeling ambivalent about his complaint re: the current fashion in typeface design. As soon as Nick's Panoptica fonts become fashionable he'll have no reason to lament. And if his ideas, in the form of that font family, are going to gain cultural currency it seems like it would happen as a result of the whim of fashion first & then maybe general acceptance later.

This is a process that is a wonderful if quite fickle mistress. Sorry about the gender inapproprate anology... Still, this process widens our culture.

And it is here because of a capitalistic, and often ignorant or naive urge towards novelty. I don't really think it could work any other way. Not if a broad range of type is something you value. Emigre's original early 90's fonts might well not rate too highly if they released their stuff now. Our jaded eyes would move on - fair or no. And I do think it wouyld be unfair. I think we were lucky to have them show up when they did. But fashion/timing/luck has alot to do with their now iconic status.

On the other hand having a grounding in the art, science & craft of an artistic discipline is what gives art it's depth. I don't think this part is not responsive to capitalism - it requires a comitment from the artist which makes no capitalistic sense whatsoever.

And I think we need both.

As far as the debate between Nick & Chris about how Creativity & Originality are to be realized I think it's different for different people. Also, IF it happens to a person at all, the personal experience - and therefore they way they describe it - will be diffrent for diffrerent people too. And it will be much more likeley to happen to somebody who is steeped in the discipline for some time. Then if they choose to say 'the education got in my way' or ' I am buiding on the achievements of my forebearers' or ' I am original' or 'look what I made- neat huh?' will not matter. The work will speak for itself .

About Parker's commets about the 2 minute design: It puts me in mind of a story I read in Eye magazine years ago about a desiner who was musing about what to do with a client who they had advised to keep the logo they had. After all, he had saved them alot of money,time and kept brand continuity!

Nick Shinn's picture

>it took two minutes plus 16 years

The designer was Paula Scher, keynote speaker at this year's TypeCon.

The "2 minutes" anecdote is, I regret to inform you, neither creative nor original, and derives from the Ruskin-Whistler libel case of 1878.

>nothing new under the sun

There is. It's called an emergent phenomenon.

Sergej, here's what they mean to me:

• original - constructed from principle, not imitation or copied forms.
• creative - emergent

In design, there is a clear distinction between copying (drawing) something by hand and eye, which makes an original work, and tracing or cut-and-paste, which does not, although it may be creative.

Bert Vanderveen's picture

David Bowie's take on appropriation etcetera:

"It's hard enough to be clever, you don't have to be original."

hankzane's picture

Garald, I didn't ask for definitions. I asked for people's idividual understanding.

timd's picture

Problem solving not originality should be the aim of a designer, so I suppose original is not a target, more a happy circumstance. Creative is more the process of taking raw data and understanding it and improving on it.

aluminum's picture

original = meaningless term that clients toss out due to a lack of any strategic insight into their actual business problem and project goals.

creative = meaningless term that clients toss out due to a lack of any strategic insight into their actual business problem and project goals.

jupiterboy's picture

It seems odd to me that because the words exist we assume there is something behind them.

That we create without having first worked out a lingual support structure to validate our impulse would be original? To create after having worked through the problem in internal dialogue is creative?

I tend to respond to art strongly when I can’t get on top of it through language. This has to do with my personal mental dexterity or lack of. I wouldn't fool myself into believing that my perception has any validity in relation to the object.

If I hear someone call this or that execution creative or original, this tells me something about the person making the projection, but not much about the object.

I think Tim is pointing in the right direction when he uses the word process.

Norbert Florendo's picture

This is great!

In less than 24 hours from Sergej's original post there have been nearly 40 replies and over 400 reads, and the majority of responses have been exploratory with depth of content.

It shows that we truly care about what we do.

Yes, I'm old, but I'm an original copy!

Shu's picture

original = a semiotic impossibilty
creative = an attempt to disprove the above reality

kadavy's picture

I feel like to be creative, you have to look at something in a way nobody has before.

To be original, you inject yourself, your own personality into it.

So I guess they're the same thing.

Yet by trying to analyze the word "creative," we can be creative, which makes this discussion much like a dog chasing its own tail.

I know David Kadavy.

eomine's picture

John Maeda on creativity and originality:

hrant's picture

On the other hand, when Klimis Mastoridis invited Maeda to speak at the Thessaloniki conference in 2004, he said he's "no longer interested in typography". I guess it's not creative and original enough.


jay's picture

I finally watched "What the Bleep do We Know" over the weekend, and the movie included a story about Columbus arriving in the New World. The story claimed that the natives couldn't see Columbus' ships; the ships were so far outside the life-experience of the natives they were simply unable to accept them, therefore their brains refused to process the visual input.

Whether this story is true or not, we've all seen pictures of people in Indonesia staring at the tsunami in disbelief, unable to react because they didn't have a reference for a 10-meter wave hitting the beach without warning on a beautiful day.

I think a more mild version of this phenomenon happens all the time: if something is too different, a vast majority of people will simply block it out and move on, without consious thought (Douglas Adams made fun of this phenomenon with his "SEP"-invisibility field: make something look impossible, then surround it with a "Someone Else's Problem" field, and people will completely ignore it.)

As designers, we are constrained by this tendency in people. If we design something too radically different from what has gone before, our clients will reject the design (and rightly so, because the target audience won't accept it, either). So the design has to be mostly ... used, I guess is a good term ... but just a little original so people will notice it.

(Yes, I am talking about design for commission. Design for the sake of design is art, and a totally different issue.)

The good news about used design is that people know what it means. If we move from visual to verbal, imagine what would happen if we all started creating "original" words.

Have a Phlendal Day!


(now I have to go google "phlendal" and make sure it doesn't exist.)

(Come to think of it, "google" is an interesting example. It was a corruption of "googol", but now means something completly different. Was that originality? Or creative?)

hrant's picture

Jay, good points.

> unable to react because they didn’t have a reference

The really ancient tribes on Nicobar however immediately ran for the hills as soon as the earthquake shocks hit, even though none of them had ever experienced a tsunami... How? Folk knowledge; passed down orally no less - and to think some Westerners claim writing is at the heart of civilization. I spew water in their general direction.


hankzane's picture

So, Hrant, how long are you going to beat around the bush? Will we ever hear your own proposition? You are partially to blame for this thread, after all. *points fingers*

hrant's picture

Hey, what did I do? I've just been taking sideways jabs... :-)

Well, OK, let me ask: Are we trying to nail down terminology? Because I hate that. Or are we trying to figure out how creative/original a type designer can/should be? Or something else? Or all of the above?


printninja's picture

Well, you can create without being original, but can you be original without creating?

But really, is anything original? Aren't we, as artistic humans, merely making new combinations of the things we are exposed to with our limited senses? Was the first airplane original, or was it just a creation of things which already existed (a bird image, wood, an engine.)

For that matter, do we create, or do we combine? Isn't every new "creation" just a new way of combining things that already exist? Isn't glass just silica combined in a different way? How about a true creation... a child? Is a child an original creation, or just a copy of existing DNA, combined in a new way?

Is life in an original concept, or was it just stolen from somewhere else?

ebensorkin's picture

Nice post Jay.

I would like to suggest a way to extend the thread - What work do you find creative? What work original? What is the best part of this work? Was it just that it held your attention - or something else?

Paul Cutler's picture

Original and Creative
Miles Davis - Kind of Blue
The sound of New York City in a special moment in time.
Li Po
A wanton drunkard who supposedly drowned while chasing his reflection in a lake. Some of the most beautiful poetry of the Tang dynasty, one of the richest cultural periods this planet has experienced.
Shinkichi Takahashi - Triumph of the Sparrow
A dadaist turned zen monk whose poetry is impenetrable, yet full of meaning.
Tuvan throat singing
The sound of harmonics emanating from nomads on the steppes of Asia.

Now that I'm making a list I feel like an idiot but I could go on and on…

Original and Creative - are these not ideals that we aspire to? Like love - something that is never completely realized due to the frailty of our constitutions but a dream to send us into the good night. There are concepts that are never achieved on a pure level that are still important to humans as guideposts. I believe that these two words fit into that category.

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