Combinatorial Creativity: Is Originality a Myth?

Creativity is a complex subject and the topic for today is originality. We may fear that our work is not unique enough, or not innovative as we would want it to be. Or perhaps even get to think it is a mere copy of a lot of content we see.

But when can you say one piece of work is truly original?  

Writer Jonathan Lethem has said that when people call something "original", nine out of ten times they simply don't know the references or the original sources involved. It is very difficult for something to spark out of nowhere. The Eureka! moment is actually a composition of diverse existing ideas, knowledge and experience we acquire through time.

To understand this from a biological perspective, neuroscientist David Eaglemen states the following about the unconscious process that occurs as we come up with an idea we call our own: 

When an idea is served up, the neural circuitry has been working on the problems for hours or days or years, consolidating information and trying out new combinations. But you merely take credit without further wonderment at the vast, hidden political machinery behind the scenes.
— Eagleman, D. Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain (2011)

In this realm, I want to introduce you to Everything is a Remix. The video below is part of this series by filmmaker Kirby Ferguson, about the evolution of remix and combinatorial creation across different mediums.

The film presents creativity as a result that does not come from "magic", but from applying ordinary tools of work to existing materials.

The basic elements of creativity:

1. Copy

2. Transform

3. Combine

From Ferguson's point of view, one of the basic elements of creativity is copying. It will help us build a foundation to our repertoire of concepts. This is why most artist spend various years of their life producing derivative work before they finally bring together a personal style.

Eventually, we will start to transform and combine this learned concepts to deliver an unique outcome. It is a result of the process. Take the example of the Macintosh, it was probably born from the idea of graphical interface merged with the computer as a household appliance as the video explains.

Do your research and look out for elements you can borrow and transform. There is a lot of value in taking existing elements and combining them in unusual ways.


Kleon, A. Steal Like An Artist (2012)

Kleon, A. Steal Like An Artist (2012)

It is important to mention that when we speak of copying we are talking of practice, never copy and try to take the credit for yourself. That would be just plagiarism and that is wrong in every way. Instead, take inspiration from diverse areas and reverse-engineer the process of those creations to import insights to your work. 

Austin Kleon, an american artist and writer, gives us a very clear illustration of what represents "good theft" vs. "bad theft" in his book Steal Like An Artist

Kleon, A. Steal Like An Artist (2012)

Kleon, A. Steal Like An Artist (2012)


The remix of ideas brings us the concept of combinatorial creativity, which happens as a force of connections built from our mental pool of inspiration and resources. Therefore, we could speak of creativity as multidimensional, with several layers composing the final result of creative work. There is no such thing as creation built from scratch.

As French-Swiss film director Jean-Luc Godard said: "It's not where you take things from ― it's where you take them to." However, we can optimize our minds for combinatorial creativity – by cultivating a wildly diverse body of references for our work.

If you prison yourself to the same medium (or even worse, to the same artist), you will just repeat yourself and the work of others. Collect things that you love and resonate with your soul. Consume everything you can that inspires you: films, music, architecture, photographs, poems, conversations, nature. In this diversity lies our authenticity.

Once we step out into unknown resources and create new combinations, this is where the magic happens.


Ford, H. (2002) Everything is a Remix - The Elements of Creativity. 

Ford, H. (2002) Everything is a Remix - The Elements of Creativity.