A little story about origami

Opens​ blog, blows off the dust, sweeps away the cobwebs.

Apparently I haven’t published a blog post in 2 years (something something pandemic). Time to see if these old writing muscles still work.

During 2020–21 I withdrew a lot from doing tech stuff. Online-only meetups were unenjoyable, and I stopped watching video recordings from conferences, stopped working on my own open source stuff, stopped writing blog posts. What little coding I did do was limited to simple scripts, or very occasional contributions to the MDN compat data project. (In fact, that was a topic of a different blog post that I never got around to finishing.)

With enforced working from home and spending all day staring at a screen of code in my room, I really didn’t want to spend more time doing the exact same thing at night.

What I did instead was throw myself back into the world of origami.

World starts to go wavy — oh no, it’s another flashback!

Folding origami models has been a hobby of mine since I was a kid. I would have spurts of wanting to fold all the time, then many months of not touching it at all. For a long time I was content with just folding models designed by other people. I would occasionally try to design something myself, but generally only half-heartedly. As soon as an idea didn’t work, I dropped it and did something else.

In my adult life, I’ve tried to treat origami as an offline world. Between my job, reading news on my phone, coding side projects (far less often these days), or watching TV and movies, I spend an awful lot of my time looking at a screen. Origami gives me an excuse to do something physical with my hands that doesn’t involve a screen at all. (Which is why I get frustrated that some great new models are only taught via video tutorials.)

But some of the origami community chatter is conducted online as well, so it’s a balance. Through reading forums and mailing lists I’ve gained knowledge of creators and resources that I never would have found on my own. Annoyed at the scarcity of decent origami paper supplies in Australia, I discovered the amazing origami-shop.com. But all this connectivity is a double-edged sword. Seeing the seemingly endless brilliant output of some creators can be excruciatingly disheartening when I’ve failed to design even a simple bird.

I have made proper attempts to design models previously, usually as one-offs. The most successful moment was when I created an origami version of the then-current “Charlie” logo of Atlassian, where I was working at the time. Unfortunately the company blog post I wrote about it has fallen victim to a website revamp and all the old links stopped working. But at least it’s still available in the Wayback Machine.

End flashback

So back to 2020 and being stuck at home, getting less and less interested in doing anything digital in my downtime. I went back to finish folding all the models from a book I’d received a couple of years earlier.

A book surrounded by folded origami models

It got the interest kick-started again. I wanted to try designing something, but I was having no luck with my attempts. Instead, I got inspired by an unusual source. The previous year, I’d given a talk at the Web Directions Summit conference. Web Directions has an interesting geometric logo with simple black squares on a white background.

I tried several different approaches, and kept refining the efficiency of paper usage. Eventually I got a result I was pleased with:

Origami representation of the Web Directions logo

But… that was kind of it for a while. Until the second big Sydney lockdown in 2021.

Lockdown, summer winter in the city

For a community that loves to design models of animals, and loves a challenging subject, I’ve always found it curious that there are so few origami models of Australian native animals. Sure, the small number of stereotypical animals are always represented—kangaroos and koalas, mostly—but other distinctive creatures are barely found.

Over a few years I’ve been building up a list of subjects I could attempt to design. This most recent lockdown is when I finally decided to bite the bullet and make a proper go of it. I’m going to try to ignore the (frequent) self doubt, and the crushing weight of disappointment that I can’t design things anywhere near as complex as other people can. I’ve got to remind myself that there’s a fair bit of selection bias going on; we don’t see all the failed attempts, only the ones that succeeded. I also have to remember that the incredibly prolific creators have spent, in a lot of cases, decades practising and refining.

Creature comforts

Now it’s all well and good to decide “I’m going to do more of X”, but what does “doing X” actually look like? More specifically, how do I want to design these models? One of the beauties of an artistic field like origami is that it can range from almost-impossibly precise to eye-squintingly abstract. Most origami artists have their own particular style; what should mine be? (Or at least, what should I aim for?)

I’ve always admired the incredible technical precision of Robert J. Lang’s works, ever since buying one of his books as a teenager. His Origami Design Secrets book is a phenomenal guide for designing the basic structure of a model. But getting from “basic structure” to “shaped and refined final model” can still take many dozens of folds and tricks.

Many other artists work the other way around, and seem to be able to look at a random collection of paper flaps and see many different ideas of what it can become. A simple base transforms into a bird, a dinosaur, a mammal, a fish, or any number of variations of them. Meanwhile I play around with some paper, come up with an interesting-looking base, then can’t even think up one thing it could become, let alone many.

Lang’s models are impressive in their accuracy and complexity, and I own more origami books by him than by anyone else. But I’ve found myself moving away from them as a source of inspiration. Lately I’ve been far more inspired by the whimsical and expressive models of Oriol Esteve and Sébastian Limet. Their creations are so full of character that they never cease to make me smile. Reading their notes on design processes, a common theme is picking just one or two features of their chosen subject and emphasising them almost to the point of cartoonishness. I think this is where I want to head with designing models — not super-complex, but with personality.

I feel like there should be a heading here

But that’s the creature side of things. I also have ideas for representing logos and abstract shapes, playing with multiple colours. These are far more technical and mathematical and require a different design process.

Following on from the Web Directions logo, I wanted to tackle the JavaScript logo as well. I love the creativity that comes with two-colour designs. I created designs for simplified J and S models separately, trying to refine each of them to use as little paper as possible. But combining them together meant an awful lot of wasted paper, and it never quite clicked. I felt like I was missing some crucial design trick that would suddenly make everything fit together properly.

Then I discovered Mi Wu’s Duo Color Origami which, in addition to some stunning two-colour models, also contains a few pages on his process for creating dual-colour models. This was the missing information I’d been craving. Suddenly I was reinvigorated and trying completely different ideas and approaches, with far better results. I’d been so bogged down in a very linear, box-like way of thinking that I needed the kick to try completely different angles. I haven’t got the model exactly as I want it yet, but it’s very close.

Below the fold

So why am I writing all of this on a blog that’s previously been very coding-heavy in content? Well, quite frankly, writing technical posts was feeling like just more of the same kind of thing I do at work. I want this site to reflect the various interests I have. Plus, when (if?) I finishing designing some of these models, I’ll try to write entries about them. This post serves as the prelude and context.

And really, I guess all of this is just a very long-winded thank you note to Nicolas Terry, who runs origami-shop.com in France. Without that site exposing me to different speciality papers, different authors, and especially different ways of thinking, I’d still be stuck in a rut.

Let’s hope the next blog post is not another 2 years away…