I found this X-ray of my skull from my orthodontist last year. Looking at it I realized the large whitish-gray space of “nothingness/somethingness” that took up most of my head was the place where my ideas come from. Thinking on it more, I wondered if that’s really true. Do my ideas originate from here or do they come from elsewhere?
In interviews with other creatives I’ve heard the very pedestrian question that makes many creatives inwardly roll there eyes, “Where do your ideas come from?”.
It’s not divination, it’s not written down on holy tablets or some book of the necronomicon, not from a magic elf or djinn, and not from any one source. It just can’t be. We have too many phases in our maturation that affect us. Our ideas are the sum of our experiences and our brains seek out patterns and order, typically mixing and remixing until we hit upon something pleasing. In many cases it’s an organic experience of adding and subtracting, breeding and cross-breeding until something creative and hopefully new, is born.
But what is new? What is originality? I’d argue that on our best days what’s “original” is something where most people cannot see the influence in the work. Where the confluence of craftsmanship, execution and idea surprise and delight and captures an audiences imagination.
In video games and other media I’ve heard and read that originality and innovation follow pretty much the 80/20 rule. Your most likely only going to innovate 20%. Something will feel 20% new. Why is that? Think about this. You’re driving down a highway, everyone’s going at a clip of 60 mph the next exit is an off-ramp where you slow down to 35 mph. Engineers know full well what it takes to transition to the town or exit of your choice, a nice slow curve and controlled speed. Imagine if all the exits were 90 degree right turns with no shoulder no cool down no transition. It’d look like Mad Max out there. Blood and death on the highway.
Innovation and originality in many cases works similarly. How often have you heard about a pioneering inventor who was ahead of his time or an auteur whose masterwork outshines her contemporaries? It’s usually those who stand on the shoulders of those pioneers that bring about the “original” work so that it is consumable and digestible to an audience. They understand the bridge required to make this happen and they’re able to tweak the knobs and dials to perfect it.
Is originality important? I think it is. I think being a pioneer is what helps us evolve as humans. We’ve let popularity and relatability drive so much of our Pavlovian efforts towards creative endeavors that we’re slowly making a very tasteless soup of all the ingredients that we feed on from the internets everyday. People know who the pioneers are. They’re the ones who excite, who people watch and cannot look away. They tend to be the victims of hacks and swipes. Be that as it may, I’d rather be a Tesla than an Edison.
That’s why it’s important to feed the brain a wide variety of inputs. If we’re just looking at what influences us in terms of consumerist entertainment, that’s really not enough. That’s like always eating cereal 3 times a day 7 days a week. It’s not even really a food group, it’s a product of a food group. Entertainment is the summation of other people’s ideas, interpretation and influences, baby-birded into our brains already chewed up.
My favorite thing to hear is, “There’s nothing original, everything’s been done.” It’s great, it really is. Because what that says to me is, you’ve quit trying. Why continue?
Living real life, having real interactions with people and the natural world is about the most original thing you can do. By looking at modalities of human behavior whether it’s emotional, spiritual or physical and how it relates to the world around them will give you greater inspiration for story, for design, for problem-solving than anything else.
I think it’s interesting that Disney and other animation studios send their artist on location to let all of their five (six) senses experience a location, an animal, a culture, to immerse themselves so completely and then to report back on what they’ve found. Sure, we can’t all afford that on our own, but getting out of our studios…and going local is far better than the first 50 Google images…or that magazine morgue file that you clipped and never looked at. You’re only using one sense: sight. But is that really enough?
This is just as much a problem for me as it is for many other artists. But I know we all do personal work. And personally, that should always be the best work. So, when you can show your best work, and describe to a client how you got there, you’re educating them as to how their budgets should adjust to get exactly that level of quality. Whether it’s more time, more research, or budget to send you someplace, you’re selling them on the idea of a process that gets results.
It doesn’t always happen, I know, it’s a pie-in-the-sky dream sometimes. But there’s few ways to stay competitive in this industry and your head can always use the power of observation and experience to refuel it.