Originality and creativity are often used synonymously, but there’s a difference. Originality refers to the first of its kind, something that’s never been done before. Creativity means thinking up new ideas and approaches. In this article, we’ll explore the difference between these two terms and how they overlap.
Not Everything That’s Creative Is Original
There are many fields in which people make very creative contributions – art, music, design, business, and more – without creating anything original. Since originality means that there’s no previous work with the same idea, this isn’t always the case.
In fact, it’s usually not the case.
In art, design thinking, sound engineering, and many other fields, many creative achievements can be inspired by existing works. Each piece of creativity represents a new combination of ideas, to create a different way of doing things. Or produce a new thing.
How Creativity Works
Creativity – in any field – is something that emerges from a process of exploration and experimentation, and this process cannot be fully planned and followed without losing the essential ingredient of creativity:
Painters often draw inspiration from the works of other artists to create their art (even masters such as Van Gogh), and many musicians create their music by sampling and remixing other pieces of music.
Creative thinking is often associated with a process termed divergent thinking. A process that today leverages new technologies.
Technology has made it much easier for sound engineers to manipulate sound, and now there’s much more creativity in their work.
Computers can be used to layer and mix individual pieces of music, create sound effects, and much more. Some of the most creative sound engineers are those who’ve mastered these technologies to devise unique ideas in their particular music genre.
Related: Why Creative Process Matters
Creativity and Originality in Business
Companies take existing ideas and create products inspired by those ideas – this is often what constitutes “innovation.” The creative achievement of originality is therefore often less creative or original than it seems.
In technology, the products that Apple, Google, and Samsung make are based on the ideas (and sometimes expired patents) of many people who came before them.
In many cases, an ‘original idea’ or ‘unique idea’ depends on the work of other people. Whether consciously or unconsciously, it’s amazing what your mind absorbs over time.
Are You the First?
That, again, is an important distinction between creativity and originality.
Originality is about being first – the so-called “primacy” of the “original work.” A creative act, on the other hand, doesn’t have to be first, it just has to be different!
There have been many significant creative achievements that weren’t first.
For example, when the Beatles introduced rock and roll, it was a creative approach to music. At the same time, their music and creative process were heavily influenced by American blues artists.
The Beatles weren’t the first to create rock, but they were the first to create rock and roll as we know it today with their own style of music.
Are You Different?
The other distinction is a matter of degree. When you talk about a creative contribution to a field, the usual term is “new” as opposed to “original.”
This is a subtle but important distinction because novelty implies less creativity than originality.
For a creative contribution to be considered novel, it need not be the first contribution in a field. It just has to be different from all other contributions in that field.
Think of it this way: a novel contribution is one that’s both new and different.
In art, novelty isn’t necessarily as important as you might think. For example, a painter might use a brushstroke or color that’s entirely his or her idea, but he or she simply uses that stroke in a new way.
Many Original Things Are Uncreative
The truth is that many original things in this world show little or no sign of what we’d normally call “creative.”
Scientific discoveries and many new technological achievements don’t always fall into the category of “creativity” as most people would understand.
Creativity isn’t mandatory in either engineering or science, although many creative people work in both fields and use creative methods to achieve their original breakthroughs.
Creativity alone isn’t enough to guarantee originality.
For example, the discovery of the Higgs boson (the “God particle”) by the Atlas and CMS experiments at the Large Hadron Collider ( CERN) was the result of years of research.
This is in stark contrast to many other fields, such as art, music, design, and architecture, where creativity is an expected part of the process.
Originality and Creativity Can Overlap
In many cases, what we call creativity is actually originality, and to make an original contribution, you don’t always have to be creative.
The discrepancy between creativity and originality is partly a matter of culture in science and technology, and partly the result of intensive and practical development.
Creative people often have a strong sense of how much their art or profession depends on their own unique creative processes.
For them, creativity isn’t something they can access on-demand, but something that challenges them every day. It’s a central part of their being, the most important part of their lives. It’s not just a talent they can use when it suits them, but part of the reason they exist.
Creativity is a way of life.
The challenge of creativity is to figure out how to use your creativity to create new approaches, new ideas, or new products.
The best creative geniuses have the ability to think outside the box – they know that the possibilities are virtually limitless.
The challenge of originality is to find a way to make your ideas or products different from all the other ideas or products that already exist.
The Limits of Science
Despite decades of neuroscience efforts, it remains impossible to achieve certainty about the nature of creativity. Knowing that certain parts of the brain light up during creative activity isn’t the same as understanding the processes that lead to it.
Most researchers agree that they know some elements that make someone a creative person, but not what exactly constitutes that quality.
Related: What Does It Mean to Be Creative
Originality Is Really Hard to Achieve
You might think that creativity is harder to achieve than originality.
Originality is extremely hard to achieve, but creativity isn’t. The reason is that creativity can be a new expression of an existing idea, but originality means developing a completely new idea.
So you can write, paint, sculpt, dance … and be extremely creative. But you’ll rarely create something that’s never been done before in the history of mankind. Something original.
Originality is rare. Creativity isn’t.
The Creativity Spectrum
Creativity is divided into “Little C” and “Big C”: the little things and the really important contributions to culture, society, and humanity. The little C are sketches, ideas, the first draft of a poem, or the first sketch of a painting.
Anything that involves improvisation or play can be classified as Little C.
Big C is the highest level of creativity: creative breakthroughs, innovative new ways of thinking, breakthroughs in science, whole new areas of knowledge.
In my opinion, the two categories aren’t strictly delineated but can merge through experience, practice, luck, inspiration, and more.
It seems to me that originality is at the end of the spectrum because originality somehow escapes the world of play and puts a stake in the sand of progress.
Not all creativity or originality makes a positive contribution to humanity; there are many examples of so-called “malign creativity” (and, I’d say, “malign originality”).
Originality Is Hard to Define
Can one idea ever be said to be independent of all others?
No less an artist than Picasso coined the phrase that “great artists steal.” The topic of an excellent book by Austin Kleon, Steal Like An Artist.
The point is that many ideas or concepts only exist as a combination of other ideas. That, in essence, is creativity. However, this affects also how we see creativity.
Is it about creating new combinations of ideas, or about documenting old ideas in new ways?
The question isn’t whether a creative work was inspired by another work or whether ideas were taken from a series of works.
Rather, the question is whether the creativity of expression is such that the derivative creative work stands out from others.
Is it original? No. Is it creative? Absolutely.
Almost every film, with few exceptions, falls into this category. I’d say that Inception and The Matrix are perhaps original works (although The Matrix harkens back to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Soylent Green in my opinion).
How Do We Know When a Derivative Work Is an Original?
Copyright law has a point, of course. Something that’s original must originate with the author or creator and cross a certain threshold of originality.
That means it can’t just be a mixture of similar elements or based on the work of others. It must be so different from the works that came before it.
Accurately assessing originality in the context of copyright can be a difficult and time-consuming task. Some would say it’s impossible.
In any case, it depends on how individual jurisdictions around the world operate and what thresholds they set.
In patent protection, which generally applies stricter standards than copyright protection, a work must also be the first to be original.
Why the Distinction Between Originality and Creativity Is Important
Modern technology and creative exchange via the Internet mean that more ideas are being shared than ever before. That in itself is a good thing because it opens up new opportunities for creativity and originality to spread.
The flip side of the coin, however, is that it’s easier than ever to copy creative works, which means originality is harder to find.
It’s also hard to see where the ideas come from.
Originality will also be harder to determine. Ironically, AI and algorithms are being used to help with this task! And to help sift a good idea or even a great idea out of the morass of average ones.
It’s almost certain that AI will play an increasingly important role in reducing the scope for originality and encouraging collaboration in many creative fields and professions.
This isn’t just about people participating in creative development, but also about artificial intelligence being used as a “co-creator” of creative works based on the data it’s fed.
Artificial intelligence will act as a “digital memory” that scours databases of past work and can recognize and classify patterns more accurately than humans.
It’ll also act as a “matching engine” that can identify similarities or patterns in creative works and speed up the process of finding original works.
Whether a machine can produce anything truly creative, let alone original, on its own is debatable, but there are already some authors who specialize in creating fiction using software designed for this purpose.
For example, AI Dungeon, Sudowrite, and others.
Perhaps it’s not too far a stretch to say that a future William Shakespeare might use an AI as part of his or her writing process!