Originality is Overrated – Really!


After the Republican National Convention, everyone’s talking about originality. High school teachers across the country took to social media to explain the ins and outs of plagiarism; both Melania and Donald Jr. have been accused of, at a minimum, borrowing key phrases from other people’s speeches. It’s clear that when it comes to content – in this instance, political speeches – we want to be exposed to material that’s wholly original and unique to the occasion.

Google’s also particular about original content. When content appears in more than one place on the internet, it becomes difficult for Google to prioritize search results accurately; in extreme cases, Google will penalize sites that publish unattributed duplicate content.

Content isn’t the only thing you need to be concerned about online. If your website design mirrors a competitor’s aesthetic too closely, you may find yourself dealing with copyright or trademark infringement complaints.

With that in mind, it seems tempting to create everything from scratch every single time. But there are several instances where making use of other people’s work makes good sense.

In speechwriting circles, using quotes from other famous speakers is an acceptable best practice, assuming everything is attributed correctly. Why? There are three reasons to use quotes. First, a familiar quote can express a powerful sentiment very efficiently – when someone cites Roosevelt’s “We have nothing to fear but fear itself” listeners instantly recognize the call to be courageous. Second, quoting someone indicates that your thoughts, values, and approach are in alignment with the person you’re quoting – this is why people quote Abraham Lincoln and not Charles Manson. Third, there’s no harm in admitting that someone else said what you wanted to say eloquently and exceptionally well. Using the best possible words to convey your meaning is smart communication.

The other area where originality can definitely be overrated in is experience design. Whether we’re talking about a physical business location or a website, there are certain navigational elements that shoppers have gotten used to and have come to expect. It’s possible to vary things a little bit – think about the grocery retailer who moves a display of bananas from their usual location in the produce section to the cereal aisle – but by and large, sticking to accepted design conventions can be a very good thing. In digital spaces, this means using accepted navigation norms and display features: if a website visitor has to work too hard to figure out how to access the information they want to see, they’re not going to be surprised, charmed and entertained: they’re going to be frustrated, irritated, and moving on to see what your competitor is doing.

It seems appropriate to close this out with a quote, so here’s a bit from the Byrds’ hit song Turn, Turn, Turn: “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose.” There’s absolutely a time to create your own original messaging and share that with the world. And there’s also a time to use those conventions created by others to give your customer the experience they’re expecting.

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