Bryan Taylor

Stealing Originality

Where do creative ideas come from? Our dreams? At random? Last month, Jane Porter argued that they come from our habits. Rob Stokes of Frog Design in Austin advocates for teaching creativity to teens before college, while they are in the height of shaping their perspectives.

It has been 20 years since I was a teenager entering my first college day of design class. But I remember it well.

Into the white, concrete basement walked Alva, gray haired and slightly disheveled. He cranked up his beloved jazz, drank his morning coffee, and walked around while we were free to draw whatever came to mind. No direction. No syllabus or course expectations. I think he realized we all needed a little time to sketch, to loosen up with a free-roaming pencil.

“There is no such thing as an original idea.”

At the end of our first class together, Alva gathered our attention and shared his only rule for the class. And as I looked down on my drawings, I found that, in fact, I had spent the majority of my time sketching things I had seen, logos I liked, shapes and patterns that others had branded.

“But there is such a thing as stealing.”

This is the all-important second half of the rule, anchoring the freedom of the first half with a sense of creative responsibility. Both halves have stuck with me ever since.

There is no such thing as a truly original idea.

Originality applies to design as well as writing, business, music, everything. We are constantly assimilating information, with all five senses, every single day. We “like” people and organizations. We follow those we admire. And inevitably, their ideas influence our own.

We all allow the ideas of others to infuse the directions we go and the decisions we make. They affect the way we talk, the way we dress, the way we conduct business, the way we design brands.

But there is such a thing as stealing.

We have all seen it, and chances are good that we have all done it. In fourth grade, my friend Steve wanted to give a clever gift to our teacher, and he told me his idea after he made me swear I wouldn’t steal it. I swore, and then, of course, I stole it, giving it to our teacher as if I had conjured this epic gift.

Cheap imitation is all too common.

Cheap imitation is found everywhere in business — and from branding agencies. In March, Michael Johnson illustrated this dynamic in an article called “Copying as Flattery?” And while imitation may indeed be the most sincere form of flattery, it is also lazy. It is lazy to steal another platform and take the shortcut to pretend it is your own. It is lazy, and ultimately reflects poorly on a brand not good enough to stand on its own legs.

Business and brand building have to straddle these two maxims. We observe the good ideas of others, we learn from those who have gone through the fires we are approaching, and we glean wisdom from those who have a track record to envy. But we also must avoid the trap of stealing.

Cultivating new ideas.

Old ideas are the foundation for new ideas that can become truly unique, if we put in the time to push those ideas forward. Alva’s message to us on that first day was that it is good to observe and appreciate the ideas of others. And to allow those ideas to infiltrate our own thinking. But those ideas are just starting blocks.

Brands take time to build. Anybody can fill out a template or crank out a trite marketing campaign. But if you want it to be authentic, if you want it to be different than the last 23 clients who have received the same treatment, then you need to allow for and invest in the time it takes to truly build authenticity.

Stealing ideas shatters any hope of building authenticity for your own organization. It cheapens any good work that you have done to build your own brand platform.

Your brand needs to demonstrate an understanding of who you are, of what defines your heart and soul, of the personality that makes you unique. And they require time to catch on, to connect with audiences inherently skeptical of inauthentic and stolen ideas.

Be original. Be authentic.

I can still remember Alva’s advice two decades later, and I am thankful to have learned such a lesson early on. And it is a lesson I have carried with me into the brands I have helped build, the friendships I have cultivated, and the few students I have had the privilege of teaching myself. Thanks, Alva. May your Coltrane and coffee keep me grounded for another two decades to come.