Copying or Inventing?

cardboard trees

What do you think about “copying”? Is it useful, boring, comfortable? What about learning something by following the instructions? How important is the knowledge of the technique and what is its role in the creative process? These interesting questions can open a broad discussion both in the artistic and educational context, looking for the right balance between rules and freedom, between structured activities or guided workshops and an open studio setting.


I don’t think one choice can be always right. Let’s consider a concrete example: a very simple, popular technique which consists of joining some pieces of cardboard or other material by inserting them through cuts (see the image below).

Image from the book “Così per gioco” by Elve Fortis de Hieronymis

This techique can be explored through endless possibilities, themes and variations, from the most basic activities of children books (like the image above) to the higher art works, like the cardboard animals by the designer Junzo Terada published by Chronicle Books or the futurist flowers by Giacomo Balla (images below).

Knowing these works, you could choose to copy one of them or to invent a new one, applying the technique in a creative way. I think no choices are definitively “good” or “bad”. In fact, “copying” does not necessarily implies laziness or lack of ideas. Sometimes it comes from a need of security, reassurance or imitation as a social strategy, from wanting to learn or strength a skill or a knowledge.

Creating something new is not necessarily related with the context and consistent with the goal of the activity, as in the following case. I designed the cardboard animals below for a workshop in a women’s prison. After the workshops, participants could sell their cardboard animals to earn some money. They were not interested in creating new ones, but to build the maximum number of nice animales in their limited time available. Thus, I think the question is not about copying vs inventing. The central core is the reason, the meaningfulness of the choice, its accessibility and connection with the context.

For example, what about the white plants of the cover image, inspired by the futurist flowers? I created them for a preschool’s opening: a celebration and collective event where an extemporary “garden” of great effect was very appropriate. I copyed the ​flowers by Giacomo Balla but also re-contextualized them according to the new context, and changed them through new variations of size, shape and function. In fact, visitors could create paper flowers in the dedicated workshop and then put them in the cardboard plants (by fixing brads in the plants’ holes).

The same idea can be offered in other ways, depending on other needs. In the case of the “Literary Forest” (see the image below), it was set up for the birthday of a public library. Each tree was dedicated to a poet and had some sheets of paper with poems in its branches. The participants of the workshop chose a poem, cut it out and use the words to decorate some special flower-pencils.

Of course, flowers and animals are not the only possible themes. The architect Francesco Bombardi used this technique for his research about wood finger-puppets. In this case, digital tools can support children’s work by allowing them to immediately cut their puppet drawing from the wood surface, so that everyone will have their puppet and will interact with others.

All these thoughts are also part of a wider picture: what value does our social, cultural background assign to tradition and innovation ? Our usual, implicit way of using techniques and examples – following what we already know rather than exploring the unknown – is influenced by this fundamental aspect.

If you reach a high level of a creative techique, you know that, at a certain point, you will find yourself along a continuum between adherence to the canon on the one hand, and free experimentation on the other – explains the psychotherapist Estella Guerrera. When you know very well how to do something, you have – at least – two choices: continuing the same way or breaking the pattern and using your skills to do something different. Both ways make sense, but this apparent dichotomy confronts us with the concept of risk and “evolutionary change”. In the psychology of the life cycle, we are called to precisely pronounce ourselves on these issues, during the different life stages: do you stay that way (“knowing to know”) or do you change and risk failure?

Both tradition (so repeating, copyng) and change play an important role in life: can you dance between these opposite sides without being stuck in one position? Here is how a technique can even provide us a meaningful metaphor for exploring our creative and life processes.


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Pencil-flowers and creative thinking

pencil flowers

When can a process be defined “creative”? What does it mean “to be creative”? It is a very complex subject and there are several definitions. I have chosen one I like. The French mathematician Henry Poincaré defined creativity as “the capacity to join scattered elements in new and useful combinations”. This means that a creative result establishes a useful link between elements that were already known before but apparently unrelated.
It often happens that we can not choose the starting elements, we just have them; but – according to Poincaré – this does not limit our creativity, as it comes from the quality of the relations: from the way to put together the elements rather than from the elements themselves.
Let’s see how this theory can be applied to a concrete example from my work. Many years ago, I was asked to project a workshop in a public library. Of course, there were some established conditions I had to consider: the workshop was supposed to last about one hour, for children from 6 to 10 years old, celebrating the library’s birthday and using simple stationery or recycled materials (paper, fabric, plastic bottles, pensils, markers, scissors, glue). Moreover, we had a large amount of pencils available (thanks to a sponsor).


Starting from these initial elements, the workshop idea I found was a “writing-flower”, built with a pencil and paper or fabric petals. It was also possible to cut and paste words from photocopied papers with poems, that were placed in some carboard trees (you can see these trees in the post “Technique or imagination?” clicking here). At the end of the workhop, children could give some of the flowers to the library users as an unexpected gift.

The writing-flower holds together all the initial conditions in a useful and pleasant way: it exploites the materials’ potential, it is appropriate to the age of the children and to the duration of the workshop, connected to the specific place of the library (as it concerns writing) and to its birthday, as flowers are typical gift-objects.
How did this idea originate? It was not a sudden inspiration but formed through the observation of the initial elements, that suggested which solutions were possible and which not, which one fitted better to all the conditions.
For example, we had a lot of pencils: what does a pencil suggest by its shape? Or thinking about the library’s birthday: what kind of object could be preferably used as a gift for a birthday’s celebration?
If an idea does not meet all the conditions, it has to be discarded, even if sometimes it is not easy to leave it.

The choice of how to present materials is an important part of the project. In this case, I chose to make available pre-cut shapes because we had a short time, so I preferred to simplify the construction and focus on composition, formal or chromatic choices, combinations of different flowers.

The worshop went well and they asked me another one, with the same theme but a bit different. I designed other pencil-flowers using another recycled material: plastic bottles. If you are interested in, have a look to the post “The grammar of plastic bottles” clicking here.
Finally, I think that the design process of this workshop can be defined “creative”. Nevertheless, was the workshop a creative experience itself for the children (according to the initial definition)? I think that in the flowers’ construction creativity had a relatively small component, as well as there was a small margin of choice (concerning colours, shapes and sequences of petals). After all, the aim of the laboratory was not the development of creativity and children enjoyed the experience very much.

writing flowers workshop

So I think that an handmade or artistic activity is not necessarily “creative” (it is a common stereotyped idea). Of course, it is important to share the same definition of creativity as well.

Some years later, it happened that I proposed a workshop about pencil-flowers in a very different context, where the partecipants were asked to develop a more creative process. In that case, we had a longer available time and the theme of “words” was not connected to the context. I invited the partecipants to explore different kind of paper in order to create different shapes of flowers. We used colored pencils, so that the color itself could inspire a certain kind of flower.

Coming back to the initial definition of creativity (as the capacity to join scattered elements in new and useful combinations), there is something Poincaré discovered about it that surprised me very much: the intuitive criterion to recognize the usefulness of the elements’ combination is its beauty. In other words: the most useful idea is also the most beautiful.

Isn’t it amazing?

Enjoy it and have good creative processes!


Have you ever seen a walking flower?

A paper flower-hat for children

Many years ago, while walking, I met a very special street hatter. He did not sell anything, but teached how to make flower-shaped hats. Many models and shaped pieces of paper were neatly arranged in his colorful stand, ready to be assembled. Everyone could stop and choose their favorite one, the shape of the petals, the colour combinations.

Would you like to try? A hat is a serious thing. Thus, take your time. There are endless possibilities of variations, so every flower will be unique, even if just for a detail.

Look closer, care in the choice, slow down, observe the object while it is taking shape: the creative process is a bit magical and will make the hat a special, precious object. Walking flowers will begin to spread in the streets…

As in nature, despite an infinite variety, the basic principles of construction are few and simple. The following pictures show you the three main techniques, that the street hatter showed me in exchange for one icecream and seven glass marbles.

The variations of the model n.1 and n.3 concern petals (the shape, the dimensions, the color and the sequence), while in the model n.2 you can choose the color of the dome base, the shape and the size of leaves or petals on the top.

You can also give a name to your flower and create one for each member of your family or friends.

If you like to, you are welcome to share it by e-mail or Facebook, to enrich the walking-flowers catalogue.



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