Originality is Nothing But Judicious Imitation
This is my favourite creativity quote. It’s from Voltaire and it’s so true. There’s no such thing as a truly original idea. Originality comes via fresh re-combinations of existing phenomena. It requires voyeurism, theft and the bravery to act upon what you see.
Musicians know this. When Little Richard died recently, Paul McCartney tweeted this.
Without Little Richard we wouldn’t have had the Beatles. Without Little Richard we wouldn’t have had Prince.
The same principle of voyeurism and theft applies to the art world. In 1942, Picasso famously created a bull’s head sculpture by combining parts of a bicycle — the handlebars and the seat. Pre-existing objects brought together in an original way. The essence of creativity.
And of course, it applies to the world of business. If you’re looking for new ideas, as the saying goes, ‘steal with pride’.
So, where do you start looking? In a nutshell, you look everywhere.
1 Look Upwards
This means taking inspiration from premium or luxury categories and stealing some of their magic. How do they make people feel special? How do they create desire? Fast fashion brands do this all the time. Zara, Forever 21, Top Shop all take collections from the catwalk and make them available to the mass market. They make them available affordably and in no time at all.
The budget airline industry — starting with Freddie Laker — has made the joy of foreign adventure available to all, with no-frills and low prices. It’s no longer the preserve of the wealthy.
It’s what drives IKEA. They’re obsessed with making attractive, desirable products for the masses.
2 Look Down
This could mean taking inspiration a) from youth culture, which often looks to challenge the status quo. Or b) looking at what’s happening amongst less affluent groups who are forced to be more inventive. For example, many new food inventions are inspired by street food. Stalls in poorer neighbours using local ingredients that create delicious food. During the Covid-19 Lockdown we’re experiencing the re-emergence of ‘la cucina povera’. These are recipes and ingredients drawing inspiration from the rural traditions of southern Italy.
3 Look Forward
This is all about taking advantage of emerging innovations or trends and applying them to your business. We’re awash with trend reports. And they’re all free. Trend Watching. The Consumer Lifestyle Trends from the Irish Food Board. Euromonitor Pick your favourite. Steal the trends and ideas that are most relevant to you and re-apply them back to your business. For example, you can find many Covid-19 related innovations. Just click here.
4 Look Backwards
This means plundering the lessons, ideas, products from the past and re-inventing them for the modern age. We have a lot of history to choose from. As Goethe said,
‘He who cannot draw on three thousand years is living from hand to mouth’
We all love a bit of nostalgia. The 1960s is a fertile hunting ground for many brands and businesses as it was a culturally rich and optimistic era. The re-launched Mini being a prime example.
I’m a big fan of L’Eroica, a series of bike rides, using vintage bikes and clothing, which tries to capture the golden days of long distance cycle rides. It started in Tuscany but now takes place all over the world.
Every cultural movement or idea you can think of will have existed in some form or other in the past.
5 Look Sideways
Take inspiration from adjacent categories. Look around the supermarket. Are there any ingredients, packaging formats, promotions that you can steal? There’s lots of cross-over between the personal care and food categories. Fruit flavoured shampoos. Vitamin enriched drinks. They all meld together.
It doesn’t have to be just adjacent markets. Look at a completely different brand or market that’s facing a similar challenge to yours and steal their ideas. For example if you want to improve customer service, look at hotels, on line retailers, book stores, your local cafe.
Take inspiration from further afield. What’s happening in different cultures and countries? What’s happening in LA and in Tokyo? Look far and wide.
So to summarise
If you’re looking for a new idea and are feeling stuck, don’t worry. They’re out there already. You’ve just got to spot them and adapt them. Remember — ‘judicious imitation’. Look everywhere. Be systematic. Look up, down, forwards, backwards and sideways. Be brave. Choose the ideas you love and take ownership of them.
If Paul McCartney can do it, so can you.