"Everything should be made as simple as possible..but not simpler." Albert Einstein

Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent

“Nothing is original.  Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination.  Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows.  Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul.  If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic.  Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent.  And don’t bother concealing your thievery-celebrate it if you feel like it.  In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to.” -Jim Jarmusch

Last fall I received an email from a designer who said she had been alerted to the fact that a piece of clothing I had made and posted images of on flickr was a copy of a piece she had designed.  I was shocked.  I did not know this person or her work.  I took a look at the item she had designed and it was very similar in style and construction, although the two garments looked quite different.  Hers was hand knitted, mine was sewn.  I had not, of course, copied her.  This just isn’t in my make-up.  I told her I hadn’t copied her and apologized profusely for any misunderstanding and pain this had caused her.  I’m not sure she believed me.  Then I wondered what to do.  This item was meant to be part of my fall collection and I had made several of them already.  Ultimately I decided not to make any more.  I sold the ones I had made and moved on.  I think about it though from time to time.  What if I had seen her piece first?  Would she have been the one that had “copied” and had to pull the item?

In architecture school I was taught that criticism was about “the work”, not the designer, and this was very valuable in that it allowed the critique to be very professional.  It wasn’t you, the person, who was being judged, it was the work.  In the case of having your work copied, or being accused of copying someone else’s work, the discussion all of a sudden becomes personal.  It’s about values and morals and people, not about the work itself.

Yesterday I received another email, this time from someone alerting me to a designer who is making something very similar to some work I did last year.  I paused, thinking about my experience.  With the tables now turned, what do I do?  I am assuming that she isn’t aware of my work and this is just a coincidence.  But do I say something, thus coming across as accusing her?  I have no idea how I want to address this.

I have sketchbooks full of sketches, ideas, notes, images and inspiration clippings.  My head is so full of ideas for projects, things I’d like to research and to make, so full of stuff that I wake up at night thinking about it, worrying that there just isn’t enough time for it all.  I don’t want to waste time wondering whether someone copied my work.  I just want to make new things and see where they will take me in my process.

In this time of the internet we are all immersed in images and ideas.  It’s easy to see things, forget them and then have them come back subconsciously.  It’s imperative as a designer to be authentic.  To feel good about yourself and your process, to push boundaries and most of all to create beautiful, interesting and stimulating work.  To take those ideas and inspiration somewhere new and amazing.


20 Responses to “Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent”

  1. erin / dfm on March 17th, 2011

    oh sweet dear — you are one of the most authentic people online. thank you for this.

  2. molly on March 17th, 2011

    those last three sentences? beautiful. important. for all of us (even if weren’t not designers in the traditional sense.) beautiful martha. as always your personal thoughts are thought-provoking and moving.

  3. Brian on March 17th, 2011

    how true and how thoughtful (as usual). thank you for this, martha.

  4. Michelle on March 17th, 2011

    I so appreciate you sharing your thoughts. I have thought about originality in design often. I believe true originality is rare, especially well executed originality. As a young design student, as a young designer and probably still after many years I am inspired by others work. It doesn’t mean I literally copy them but I am influenced by them. We are becoming more connected visually because of the internet. I think there will be cross over as a result. It does not mean that similarity is an intentional stealing of ideas or designs. It might only mean that we are similar in what we like and how we think.

  5. Daligula on March 17th, 2011

    I remember you used this Jarmusch’s text before, and I showed it to my art history students a few classes ago to show them the importance of knowing other artists and ‘eating’ images as much as they can to make their work better. Other’s work can make ours better as much as we can take some piece of inspiration and make it our own.

    I had lost track of your blog, by the way. I used to read your old blog, and after you changed it I lost track… but I’m following you on twitter and when I read your tweet about Jim Jarmusch ideas I thought ‘bingo!’.
    I’m happy to read you again =)

  6. alexandria on March 17th, 2011

    What a well thought out post. You handled the situation with class and this quote represents what you are doing perfectly. Beautifully said and done.

  7. erin on March 17th, 2011

    this resonates with me so much, martha. thank you.

  8. Auntly H on March 17th, 2011
  9. amisha on March 17th, 2011

    you are so thoughtful, martha. this is such a smart way of approaching this difficult subject. thank you for sharing your thoughts here.

  10. Anna on March 17th, 2011

    Agreed. Life it too short to stress out about who had the idea 1st or if so and so copied so and so. Be true to yourself and move forward. I am no designer but I’ll admit that even with the little things like projects for my kids I sometimes have to stop looking at so many other peoples ideas or I feel that I never come up with my own. Or at least let my own version bubble to the top. That said, I love being inspired by others, building on what they’ve done and seeing others build on what I’ve done. It’s fun.

  11. blair on March 18th, 2011

    I’m so sorry Martha. I can imagine what you’re thinking. I checked a craft book out of the library last year and to my surprise, there was a project in it that was identical to a project I offer as a free, original tutorial on my blog. The directions were almost identical. I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach. I could never prove she copied my work, and did I need to? I wasnt’ sure. It stuck with me for a while, but I eventually let it go.


  12. Lisa Kairos on March 18th, 2011

    Thank you for this refreshing dose of sane thinking. With the proliferation of images on the internet, and the speed at which they travel and are consumed, your choice of quote could not be more right on.

    One of my favorite teachers in college used to tell us it was okay to try to copy- the masters, or even each other- because the truth is always in our hand. My hand makes marks that only my hand can make. It’s like a fingerprint. We had a very vibrant, open, and productive drawing group as a result. It is one of the truths of making that we can only really make from who we are.

    You handled the situation with grace.

  13. Sally on April 1st, 2011

    Martha, I respect you so much for always being so gracious and full of integrity. xoxo.

  14. di on April 1st, 2011

    The whole issue of copying and originality is becoming increasingly complex with the internet. I think pre-www, there was probably a lot of innocent replication of designs and design ideas that was never identified. But with the information and communication available today there are more opportunities to intentionally copy, but also to unintentionally replicate and be “found out”. And how do you “prove” which it is? Do we need to? Perhaps yes, if it’s income and earnings that are at stake. Perhaps not, if we can accept that it’s not possible to generate entirely original designs or ideas, and that the actual individual tangible products that result are what it’s all about.

  15. Mark Crotty on April 7th, 2011

    Beautifully written and thought-provoking. It made me think of two anecdotes from famous writers. First is Hemingway. He claimed that there really are only seven stories, and everything a creative writer does is some variation on one of them. The other is Twain, who said that he envied Adam as the only person who could ever be sure he had said something original.

  16. kris on April 14th, 2011

    I have experienced this over and over and over…I usually make something and then that day I will see that product somewhere elsewhere during my day. I have come to the point where I believe fervently that there is a stream of artistic energy that is present and is accessible by everyone. If artists have the same or similar stream that they are pulling from it makes sense that there would be very similar interpretations of that energetic stream. It makes it difficult with people that feel the need to hold onto an idea, feeling that it is exclusively theirs, maybe this is a process of people learning to be beautifully creative while not holding onto the identity of the whole thing….just offering this loveliness up to the world..

  17. abby on May 31st, 2011

    Love this, Martha.
    You continue to inspire.

  18. Rachel on May 31st, 2011

    This was so well written Martha. I think somehow we have forgotten to give people the benefit of the doubt. And although there is some blatant theft out there, I think there is also a lot of collective creativity. We are all inspired by many of the same sources. It makes me sad to think of the overall negativity this mindset of stealing causes in the online community. As usual, you have such a calm thoughtful way of approaching this topic. xo, rach

  19. lisa s on May 31st, 2011

    ah martha.
    leave it to you to be so thoughtful on this difficult subject.
    authentic – yes.
    honest – yes.
    true to one’s self – yes.
    and then… at some point you have to let go.

  20. tracy on May 31st, 2011

    YES!!!!!!!!!!!!!! thank you for writing this. THANK YOU.

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