How far can you stretch originality?


One of the requests I get very often during briefings is to produce "something original". However, it is very rare that the client actually wants something original:

adj. 1 existing from the beginning, innate. 2 novel; inventive; creative. 3 serving as a pattern; not derivative or imitative; firsthand.
(Concise Oxford dictionary of current English, ©1991)

If you were to produce something truly original, you could be almost certain that the client is going to reject it. They'll probably come up with an existing work as a reaction and ask you if you can make your work more like that. So what do they really mean when asking for something original? Let's explore what going on here in a bit more detail:

Most clients hire you to produce something they need but can't produce on their own. They probably chose you because they like the general style of your work. This - combined with their own preferences - means they already have certain expectations on what the end result should be like, or at least the general direction it should go in. Furthermore, your clients often have their clients to satisfy, or they need your product to attract customers. In both cases you can't deviate too far from those expectations as well. The general public has a certain expectancy about what certain music should sound like. For example the expectation of big, sweeping orchestral music in epic adventure films. But this goes for other areas as well. People expect a different "Look & Feel" on a dating site as compared to a chat-site. So webdesigners are confronted with this phenomenon as well, as are graphic artists, film directors, video-crews, etc. This means that it comes down to presenting something familiar in a new light. stretching the boundaries of the familiar to create something new. This is something I personally enjoy very much. So how to go about it?

First, assess your client: some clients love your individual touches, whereas others expect a very "traditional" approach, most will be somewhere inbetween. If you know what kind of customer you're dealing with it makes judging your own work a lot easier. Of course, this won't be too much trouble if you've worked with that particualr client before, but it's still a good idea to think this over every once in a while. If only to keep on top of things and provide yourself with some fresh perspective.

Next you'll want to know what specifically defines a requested style. Analyse some existing works and find out what aspects are most peculiar to the given style. Try to find the things that are obvious, the broad characteristics. Now you have a yardstick to measure your work against. Of course many general styles consist of various substyles. Needless to say it pays of to know the differences between them as well. There's no need to strictly adhere to these categories, quite the contrary: originality often means bending those "rules". But at least you've figured out what the elements are that create the style. And if you deviate from them, you must know how and more importantly why you're doing things differently should you choose to. You must be able to judge the effect of your efforts on the people that will be seeing, hearing or using your work. And remember: I said bending the rules, not breaking them!


Now is the time to get some work done. It doesn't really matter from which end you approach the job, whatever feels most comfortable to you. Personally, if a style is new to me, I'll start with some ideas that adhere rather close to the requested style and make it more personal from there. But more often I will start from my own personal vision and take it from there in the direction of the general style. This is usually much harder to do but also much more satisfactory. I find it a bit harder to judge whether I'm close enough to what's requested or that there's still some "tweaking" to be done. As in all creative work there's always some risk involved, but getting it right leaves you with that warm glow of accomplishment. Not to mention a satisfied customer! And, through the years I've found that if I strayed too far from the brief, it usually required only minor tweaks to meet the clients' requests. In the end it's about judging the effects of your work on people. But don't leave yourself - your own personal vision - out of the equation. After all they hired you, so there's something in your personal style they wanted in the first place!

As all creative professionals and entrepreneurs I've misjudged a few situations like these over the years (and even lost a or two client because of my misjudgement). On the other hand: in most cases my judgment payed off to our mutual satisfaction. How about you? What are your experiences? Feel free to share in the commeents section.

Related posts:

Hooray for originality
How to manage your inspiration

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