Ashley is a talented illustrator, designer, and calligrapher. Her handywork has appeared on the shelves of Target, American Crafts, and Crate Paper (to name a few). Her latest entrepreneurial project is the Salt & Honey Market, which you should definitely check out.
Most of us spend our entire lives imitating others. When we are in school we imitate the teacher or other students to get A’s. We imitate the cool kids clothes, personalities, and hairstyles to get dates. When we get new jobs we imitate the processes and procedures of those before us to be the one who “catches on quick”. Even when we order pizza on the phone for the first time when we’re 13 we look to our seasoned pizza ordering friends to make sure we don’t screw it up. (Not that I did that when I was 13. I was, um, talking about a friend.)
It’s ingrained from the beginning – something I’ve learned firsthand by raising my baby these last 6 months. She mimics, waits, sees my reaction and then smiles when she hears my approval. Imitating is in our genes, it’s how we learn to speak, how we learn to walk, how we learn to figure out our world.
That’s fine and good and all when you’re learning, but what happens when we get so used to imitating, that we don’t know any other way? It creates a sort of culture of derivatives – a culture where everyone imitates everyone else. In which case, who is coming up with all the original ideas? And how do I become that person?
I think about this a lot. In my job we often create rehashed versions of old work in order to save time and bust out products faster. We don’t do it with the majority of our development – we need things to still feel fresh – but we do it for small things here or there with every product.
“Oh, this geometric pattern sold well last round? How can we do the same thing again but freshen it up a bit?”
“Ooh, plus signs are a trending icon right? Can we do them closer together? Further apart? Out of watercolor or marker this time? In straight lines or tilted? Black or Mint?”
It just goes on and on and on.
It’s kind of a vicious cycle that often makes me wonder if anything I create is truly original. I’m just a product of hours of viewing image after image on Pinterest, product after product in store, and trend after trend in the media. I mean, there are only so many cameras or flowers or birds you can “put on it”, right? But we come up with new versions, again and again, to my surprise and slight chagrin.
Many versions of cameras I’ve designed in the last two years. Can you spot me reusing bits and pieces here and there?
As creative beings, isn’t the ultimate goal to express yourself? And, of course, it has to be in an original and awesome way that pulls out your imagination, inventiveness, and ingenuity. What happens, then, when you try to express yourself, and you only end up expressing others?
Why do we, as a creative community, continue to rehash? True, it’s the safe thing to do to protect profit margins and increase sales. It’s also efficient. But beyond business, I want to discuss the core of why we do this as artists. As artists, we have to make a concerted effort not to let sales and profit margins rule our process.
You may be saying to yourself right now that you are original (you may be, who am I to say), or you don’t just go to those sources (Hooray for you!) but my guess is that in the thick of deadlines, in the midst of pressure, the majority of the creative community just looks to each other. Just look at history. Artists have been copying each other for centuries.
Tiziano Vecelli’s ‘Venus of Urbino’ (1538) and Edouard Manet’s ‘Olympia’ 1863
What is that famous quote? “Good artists copy; great artists steal.”
The funny thing is I tried to research that quote – supposedly by Pablo Picasso quoted by Steve Jobs – and you know what I found? That quote is actually a rewording of one by T.S. Elliot, who reworded one by W. H. Davenport Adams. So that quote in and of itself was stolen. Awesome.
As with babies, so it is with artists. In one’s journey to become a professional it is common practice to copy other’s work to gain technical ability, basic skills and proficiency. My questioning of the practice mainly comes after those skills are learned and artists are still going back to what they know to inspire their work. Why do we continue to copy and imitate?
Maybe we’re just afraid. From Ed Catmull in Creativity, Inc.:
“In a fear-based, failure-averse culture, people will consciously or unconsciously avoid risk. They will seek instead to repeat something safe that’s been good enough in the past. Their work will be derivative, not innovative. But if you can foster a positive understanding of failure, the opposite will happen.”
(Ed Catmull is the president of Pixar, in case you were doubting his credentials.)
He also talks a lot about refocusing how we see ourselves to create our best work. And that comes from accepting the inevitable failure that must coexist with coming up with original ideas.
jacket illustration: © Disney • Pixar
More from Creativity, Inc. (seriously, you should read it):
“If you seek to plot out all your moves before you make them — if you put your faith in slow, deliberative planning in the hopes it will spare you failure down the line — well, you’re deluding yourself. For one thing, it’s easier to plan derivative work — things that copy or repeat something already out there. So if your primary goal is to have a fully worked out, set-in-stone plan, you are only upping your chances of being unoriginal. Moreover, you cannot plan your way out of problems.
While planning is very important, and we do a lot of it, there is only so much you can control in a creative environment. In general, I have found that people who pour their energy into thinking about an approach and insisting that it is too early to act are wrong just as often as people who dive in and work quickly. The overplanners just take longer to be wrong (and, when things inevitably go awry, are more crushed by the feeling that they have failed). There’s a corollary to this, as well: The more time you spend mapping out an approach, the more likely you are to get attached to it. The nonworking idea gets worn into your brain, like a rut in the mud. It can be difficult to get free of it and head in a different direction. Which, more often than not, is exactly what you must do.”
It’s out of fear and this obscured view of failure’s role in our life, that our society has taught us to distaste, that we find ourselves re-creating instead of creating.
So how do we break ourselves out of the rut of derivative work? You’re the creative one, you figure it out. And get used to failing while you do.