There is no one like you. In fact, there is no one like… well, anyone. No two people are the same. We all have different backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives. But if that’s the case, why does it sometimes feel so hard to be original in your creative work?
When I’m talking to someone about a potential creative project, one of the things I hear the most often is something along the lines of “I shouldn’t do it, because it’s already been done before.”
“Maybe it has been done before,” I say in reply, “but it hasn’t been done by you.”
The creator’s impact on their work cannot be understated. Have you heard of the seven basic plots? The idea is that there are really only seven types of stories that can be told, and every story ever written falls into one of those seven categories. And yet, every story you hear is unique. That’s because even if two different authors are essentially telling the same type of story, they will tell it in different ways.
What does that mean for you as a creative? It means that originality is yours to claim. It means that even if you have an idea that is similar to someone else’s, you can still put your spin on it and turn it into something that is uniquely you.
I have a few tips to help you do just that.
How to be original in your creative work
Here are some things you can try to help you come up with more original ideas and/or add originality to existing ideas.
Let go of expectations.
One reason people have a hard time being original in their creative work is that they have an idea in their head of what they are “supposed” to do. These “should statements” make us afraid to think outside the box or to try something new, because we think we will fail to reach some invisible standard if we don’t maintain the status quo.
The problem is, “should” exists only in your mind. In reality, there is no one right way to be. There is nothing you have to do in order to qualify to be a writer, painter, designer, or musician—except to write, paint, design, or make music.
You are allowed to do whatever you want to do within your creative field. Let go of perceived expectations and let your creativity run free.
The idea of “plussing” is usually tied to Walt Disney. The idea was that anyone working on a Disney project had to pair every criticism with a potential improvement—a way to “plus” it or make it better. I’ve also heard the term used in connection to Pixar, and described as the practice of constantly adding to a story (rather than taking away from it) to keep creative momentum going and to come up with the best possible product in the end.
What could you do to add the concept of “plussing” to your creative efforts? Plussing certainly doesn’t look like crumpling up your latest work and tossing it into the trash. Rather, it looks more like picking out the good parts of your work and adding to them, or seeing how you can turn something that isn’t working into something that is.
Before you give up on idea, try to plus it instead. You’ll end up with more original results.
Take the opposite approach.
If something you’re creating is starting to feel unoriginal, try approaching it from an opposite perspective. Look at your design from a different angle. Add something you would have never considered adding before. Throw in an unexpected thought or element. Consider an opposing viewpoint.
Looking at your work from a totally different perspective will help you get a new outlook on it. Even if you go back to your original perspective, experiencing that opposing viewpoint may help you add more depth and interest to your work, giving it a unique feel.
Ask the hard questions.
There are a couple different ways to interpret this:
- Ask hard questions that inspire your work. How do you create a design that evokes love? What exact colors make up a sunrise? How can you write a phrase that conveys extreme anger? These questions aren’t exactly easy to answer. They will make you think, and you will undoubtedly come up with an answer that is different from anyone else’s.
- Ask hard questions that help you critique your work. What isn’t working in your current creative project? What did you not give your best effort to? How could you take the “good” work you’ve done and turn it into “great” work? Again, these questions are hard to answer, especially because they require you to be honest and vulnerable. But being willing to ask these hard questions can open your eyes to how to improve.
Mash up ideas.
One great way to create an original idea is to combine two (or more) existing ideas into one. You could use your own works or the works of others to create an exciting and unique mashup.
The more different and independent the individual parts seem, the better. Neuroscientist Paul Howard Jones conducted a study asking people to use certain groups of words to create stories. Some of the word groups were related (e.g. brush, teeth, and shine), while others were not (e.g. cow, zip, and star). The people given the more random word groups were able to come up with more creative and original stories.
Play isn’t just a way for children to pass the time; it’s actually an important learning mechanism for them. And adults can benefit from play, too. Play reduces cortisol (the stress hormone), and invites divergent thinking by encouraging you to interact with the world in new ways.
Of course, there isn’t one right way to “play.” Some adults engage in play with things like doodling or coloring, while others prefer ping pong or foosball, and others still would rather get outside for a game of basketball or volleyball. The only criteria for play, really, is that it’s enjoyable. It helps you relax and release stress.
Try to deliberately add moments of play into your life. Allow yourself to let go and enjoy something without other pressure. Make play the goal in and of itself. Let your mind wander and see where it takes you.
Try new things.
At its heart, creativity is all about novelty. It’s about creating new solutions, new experiences, and new ideas that can better people’s lives. In order to do that, you yourself have to be open to novelty.
One of the best ways to do that is to deliberately try new things. Travel to new places, eat new foods, meet new people. Do things that put you out of your comfort zone.
This will allow your brain to think in different ways. You will have different thoughts and feelings based on these new experiences. And it will all be uniquely yours. The more varied your experiences, the more variety and nuance you’ll be able to bring to your creative endeavors.
Don’t be obsessed with being original.
Yes, being original is important. But just like anything else, if you become obsessed with being original, your creativity can actually suffer. Artists can spend their whole lives waiting for the idea that “no one has ever had before.” If you refuse to get started until you have a completely original idea, you might never get started.
One of the most important things creatives can learn is that creating is always better than not creating. Even if you don’t have an original idea—even if your idea has been done a hundred times before—it’s always better to start moving forward. Add in originality as you go. It will become yours because you are creating it.
Being original in your creative work isn’t as complicated as it may seem. Don’t overthink it. Just be you. Add your own unique perspective into everything you create. Be willing to defy expectations and just be yourself. Your work is original because you are original. Be it, own it, and love it.
Design a life that is uniquely yours.
Design.org can help you live a creative life you love. Start today by taking our free assessment. It’s fun, quick, and insightful, and will get you on track toward a happier life.