Originality is dead, according to some. But in the age of click, copy, and paste, is originality possible? What makes a piece truly original, and what separates a copy from a homage or derivative? Is it more important to feel out the landscape first, or to blaze one’s own trail?
Maintaining authenticity is hard, but we’re here to make it a little easier. Here are three dimensions of the value of originality, whether through the true pay-off of uniqueness or the dangers of its alternative.
Somewhere, someone is an expert — and they’ll see through the copies.
We’re all familiar with the middle-school classmate who doesn’t believe we’re actually into the band on our shirt: “Okay, if you listen to them, name five of their songs!” Although proving oneself is not a necessary component to establishing originality, skepticism will always persist in the face of it — so new ideas may always face questioning. It’s our job to design products and solutions that stand up to the skeptics on their own two legs, because down the road, unique design always takes risks no one else has tackled yet.
One example of how brutal cross-examination can get is found in an industry deeply tied to self-expression: fashion. And the fashion industry itself is a complex beast, but one thing it has no tolerance for is copycats. Diet Prada, a razor-sharp pair of former fashion archivists, have taken it upon themselves to publicly call out designers who draw inspiration heavily — too heavily, according to their standards — from other works.
Diet Prada is an Instagram-based account whose signature formatting juxtaposes two fashion artifacts side-by-side, intended to illustrate likeness and similarities between an original and a copy. The duo has spotlighted famous names and smaller artists alike, favoring original works while casting the disdain of nearly one million followers on their design rip-offs.
Although “call-out culture” accounts like Diet Prada have amassed huge followings due to sheer entertainment value provided to onlookers, the true charge of the duo — according to co-founders Tony Liu and Lindsey Schuyler — is to act as a megaphone to support smaller voices who can’t litigate, much less make their cause heard. The reason for this isn’t driven by fortune or fame — it’s about doing what’s right by fashion designers, but by everyday wearers, too. “I think we are in a time when everyone is really questioning the choices that they make,” Liu argues in an interview with the Guardian, “there is this move towards more consciousness as consumers.”
When it comes to design, we often draw inspiration from the works of others to recharge. But with an increasingly vast digital archive of what’s been done before, it’s easier to draw comparisons quickly, too. For the sake of delighting our users, originality and risk are values that good design and innovation can champion when done right.
Say what you mean, and mean what you say.
Research points to a shift in the way younger generations are engaging with products and services — and considering Generation Z wields a massive amount of buyer power, contributing to both household financial decision-making AND their own budgetary decisions, Gen Z wants brands to take notice. They’re a generation of creators, communicators, and changers, and they can smell BS from a mile away.
So what does being authentic mean in the viewfinder of such discerning users? Take Snapchat as an example of a product engaging in “story-living” — that is, a brand or service who takes the passive, one-directional model of “storytelling” a step further and allows consumers to live their brand’s story through their products. Snapchat introduced an unfiltered social media platform through which users could engage with one another, dispelling the curative, aesthetic-driven expectations of other platforms in favor of valuing the real moments in our day-to-day.
Across the board, products and services that generate meaning and impact through living their truth (and allowing users to live theirs, too) are establishing a new precedent for user engagement moving forward. No longer will users accept breaches of privacy, retention of personal control, or convoluted user experiences — instead, there’s a stake in the ground labeled “authentic”, and it’s up to brands and services to maintain engagement by living their truths.
Forge your own path.
When it comes to intellectual property’s standing in the face of the law, the premise of originality gets a little sticky. And as the internet has ushered in new meaning to the word “creator”, empowering users to distribute their work to larger audiences, remixes or works inspired by others are protected under Creative Commons public licenses and the derivative works section of the Copyright Act. But those protections only go so far — rather than being clear-cut, content on the internet has been subject to many discrepancies in terms of ownership and who should profit from it.
Perhaps one of the most interesting cases of a company willing to take legal action over control of its intellectual property is Blizzard, an American video game developer and publisher whose titles include World of Warcraft, Overwatch, and the Diablo series. According to Polygon, “Blizzard’s determination to maintain control over its IP is for the sake of maintaining the status quo among players, and has frequently employed legal action to defend the integrity of the player experience.” Rather than enforcing a policy against all instances of game modification (modding) regardless of a mod’s purpose or impact, Blizzard elects to only pursue legal recourse against specific types of mods, on a case-by-case basis, targeting mods that violate a game’s end-user license agreement. Or in other words, the ones that make the game unfair.
It is interesting, however, that many instances of software modification are perfectly fine by the gaming studio — the developer/modding community is typically codified by a symbiotic relationship. But if mods gravitate into territory considered “unfair” by automating processes in the game, such as automated level “grinding”, Blizzard isn’t afraid to swing the proverbial ban hammer — or initiate a lawsuit. This being said, we can learn a great lesson in product development from Blizzard’s take on mods, and the moral of the greater story: in the eyes of a developer, products and content like modding must stand on its own and enhance an experience rather than detract from someone else’s.
As more content continues to migrate to digital, and as avenues to create keep expanding, it’s important to keep an eye toward the future. Bottom line? New ideas should be distinctive, and should bring something new to the table without harming what was already there.