Making it your own

Making things for a living is hard work. Designing new things is particularly hard work. Ideas come all too often, turning them into reality is much harder. But sometimes it clicks and the vision in your head turns out just so on the fabric. You love what you have made. You show it to other people. They love what you have made. Great joy!
You show it to lots of people. Either on the internet or at shows, galleries, exhibitions. Lots of people love what you have made. Some people buy what you have made. More joy! Some people want one without having to pay for it. So they go home and make one for themselves, more or less the same. Well, fair enough. Inspiring people is good, although I (we designers) would rather they were inspired to make something original, not something pretty much the same as someone else made. But they are making it just for themselves, so no harm is done.

Sometimes that inspiration gets lost in a whole mess of many inspirations and someone making things makes something that looks just like something someone else has made before. Something we may have seen, once, somewhere at a gallery or online and forgotten about. Sometimes none of us know exactly where we got our inspiration from and whether or not someone else had the same idea before. Again, fair enough, we see it all the time at degree shows and indeed elsewhere. People other than the maker might see a similarity that the maker honestly doesn’t intend or is unaware of. We tend to refer to these objects as derivatives. Not copies – no professional designer-maker would like to assume outright copying, but we see them as derivatives. Being inspired by another maker’s style, materials, techniques… it is very, very hard not to make something that is derivative of another’s work. I personally think it is crap that there is no such thing as new design. Of course there is, it just may happen to look rather too much like something that has been made before, unintentionally. But the design process was new.

But here’s the thing. If you make something, as far as you are aware, that is totally unique and original, and you plan to sell said item, you really have to be sure that it is original, not a copy or a derivative of someone else’s work. “I didn’t know designer X had done something like that before. I didn’t intend to copy.” Well, yeah, that may be true, let us give the benefit of the doubt; innocent until or unless proved guilty and all that. Accidental mistake. We all do it. Really, we all do. But we don’t want other people to think that we have copied. This is really bad in the professional designer-maker community.

When I was starting out, I designed some scarves that i was really proud of. I showed them to a few people. They liked. Great joy! I sold some to galleries, I took them to shows. Then someone innocently said “oh they remind me of designer X’s work.” Oh. Says me. Too much like their work? Dunno, said abashed person, hard to say… Yes, I knew and admired designer X’s work. Loved it. This scarf was made without any intent to copy. The technique was different although the material was much the same. The effect was much too similar. So I spoke to designer X and said “I didn’t intend to copy you” and they said, that is fair enough, we can both see they are different, but the man in the street thinks they are by the same person. Not good. For either of us. Meaning that for designer X, it devalues their established work and muddies their market. And for me it is not good because other people will think I have copied, think I have no originality, will not respect my other work because this one is too similar to someone elses’. Bugger. I love this scarf, I want to make more of this scarf. But as designer X said to naive little me, there is no point making something that is too much like someone else’s work. You need to have your own design voice, your own style. Completely your own, that people will recognise in a line up as Ruth Singer design. What that taught me was that I had to go away and work on it again, make something new, develop it, while keep an eye on what other people are doing and make sure I don’t veer into their territory. This was probably the best advice I was ever given. Make it your own. Find your own voice. Be confident in your work.

It still happens to me sometimes. A couple of times I have started on a new piece of work, full of excitement. I get half way through and suddenly get a sinking feeling. It is too much like designer Y’s work. So I go and check designer Y’s website and see. Have they done something like this already? Bugger. So I scrap that one. Not because it wasn’t a great idea, not because I have copied, but because I want to be original, it pushes me harder to create something really new. Yes there may be similarities to designer Y, but I take care not to be derivative. And if we simultaneously produce something too similar, I would pull mine back, out of respect to designer Y’s more established status. And because I don’t want designer Y or anyone else to think I have copied. And I have to keep an eye on the textile world to see if there are things already around like the thing I have designed. If they are first, then they are first, whether I like it or not.

The design world feeds on originality, new ideas, new interpretations, new directions. That is what it is all about. That is what makes us designers not just makers.

So when someone makes something that looks just like someone else’s work, they are not just cheating the original designer of that item, they are cheating themselves. Don’t they want to be original, new, exciting, innovative, not derivative? Where is the challenge in that?

15 thoughts on “Making it your own

  1. well i exactly understand what you're saying in that post – especially as i made something i was wildy proud of only to go and google it and then find that low and behold it or something very similar {but MUCH larger} already existed and that when i looked at it i realised i had even seen it months before – and YOU were the designer!

  2. Very thoughtful post. I think it's so important we dwell on these things (and so great that more experienced creators are sharing their wisdom ;).

  3. well said. Though I sometimes find its useful to copy someones way of workjing to understand what they are doing but that said, I do not sell for a living so it a bit different.

  4. Great post and so true. You are so much prouder of your work when you have really worked at an original idea and know it's unique. I have been so frustrated lately by someone I believe is copying my work but have decided to, like you say, strive to be better and come up with new and original ideas. I've put a positive spin on it. I have plenty more ideas, I just need to get going and get them all made!You're a great designer and I love your work ethic too. Keep up the good (and very original) work šŸ™‚

  5. Terrific point: cheating themselves. I think you've for your finger on the issue for me as a maker. I've often been tempted to make something similar to what I've seen – a beautiful, original skirt, or top, or scarf. But I know that would take away from the very thing I liked about the thing in the first place: the maker's creative vision, their distinctive mark.

  6. Good point well made, very eloquent and indeed humbly made. I wish we could post it through the doors of many an etsy/folksy seller, mass-market 'designer' (ie rip off merchant for big stores…) and desperate student…You are so right in so many ways on this one. And said with much more good grace than I could muster on this topic. I hope one day we will be able to have a good old 'constructive dialogue' (chat, rant…) on such things over a glass of wine or two I think we'd have a lot to say together!

  7. Great post. That little bit extra can take something from good enough to something that's truly your own. Sometimes it's so hard to see that that's what's missing, especially after wrestling through the whole exhausting design process.Thanks for the reminder.

  8. Hi Ruth,Very interesting topic and now with the internet and a global market it is mind blowing how much is out there and how it may influence us.

  9. This is a really interesting and thought-provoking post. With any trade or skill there is an early period of learning-through-copying (this is how we sophisticated apes learn!) but with creative maturity we move beyond that. If I can draw a parallel with writing, the way you learn to write is (initially) by emulation, either conscious or unconscious. As you mature, your own voice gradually emerges. Or should do. Well, I'd be royally cheesed off to find someone doing knock-offs of my best stuff. I do know an intellectual property lawyer or two, if you ever have need!

  10. As there is so much to read and see on the Internet it always worries me that my ideas are something I've seen before and 'forgotten' about them only to think they are my own.This is a great post and I do believe there are the blatant copycats and the forgetful admirers.Really nicely written, now where's copy and paste šŸ™‚

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