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Careers in Origami

Edited by Thomas Hull and Patsy Wang-Iverson

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Perhaps you've heard that there are professional origami artists. Yes, there are a few: myself, Joseph Wu, Michael LaFosse, Paul Jackson, and Sipho Mabona for starters. (And lots of others: if I've left you out, my apologies—it's assuredly not a complete list. Feel free to add a comment, see end.) And you'd like to become one yourself, which is completely understandable because getting someone else to pay you to do something you love, like origami, is just about the best thing imaginable! So how do you get started?

I'll answer that…but first, there's a whole bunch of caveats and fine print that needs to get laid out. The first one is: I can't tell you how to become me—or Joseph, Michael, Paul, or Sipho. There's already one of each of those. Each of today's professional origami artists is unique: we have our own artistic approaches, our own skill sets, and our own areas of specialization. There's certainly overlap in what we do (i.e., origami figures into it all), but we all have our niches. And if you become a professional artist, you'll have to find your niche.

The second caveat is that the image is not the reality. The tempting image is that we sit around all day folding whatever we want, and at the end of the day, people deliver bucketfuls of money to our door in exchange for what we've created. The reality that most of us get paid by clients, and clients usually have very definite ideas of what they want, and those ideas are often not what we might be folding if left to our own devices. If you're going to bristle at folding what someone else wants you to fold, then maybe you'd be better off making your money in some other way and keeping origami an enjoyable pursuit that you can do however you wish. If, though, (like me), you find the novelty of client requests an interesting challenge (most of the time, anyway), then maybe an origami career might be agreeable to you.

The third (and final) caveat is, if you've made origami your business, you're going to have to spend a lot of effort on the business side of things: preparing and sending bids, invoicing, keeping records for taxes, and perhaps most time-worthy, marketing yourself. No matter how talented an artist you are, if clients don't know to bring opportunities to you, the origami-as-business won't work out. It's true that if one has a reputation in a field, then opportunities tend to come your way; but when you're starting out, you need to build that reputation, and nowadays that means exploiting every possible avenue of self-advertisement: website, photo sites, social media, and more.

Are you still with me after all those scary caveats? Well, great: now comes the information. I get asked a lot, "what should I study? And what are some resources?" And that's what I'll address next.

But wait: one more caveat. What you study will depend on your niche. If you're focusing on engineering, you'll study different things than if you're focusing on graphic arts and advertising. Because the world is a rapidly changing place (and origami is a rapidly changing field), any specific advice is going to be of limited utility. The opportunities available to you will be different from the ones available to me, and so any advice that is only applicable to the circumstances I faced would likely be not very useful.

There is one general piece of advice I can give, which is to follow Pasteur's advice: "chance favors the prepared mind." If you learn a lot about many fields that might be applicable, you will be better prepared to go into the one that actually turns out to be applicable—and even better, you'll be prepared to follow the new interdisciplinary field that never existed before. Most of the innovation in life happens on the edges, between the defined boundaries of existing fields. A flexible outlook and broad background give you a leg up in pursuing those new fields.

(This is, of course, a principle with applicability outside the world of professional origami. But it's especially relevant to the fast-changing world of origami.)

So where and when do you start? It depends on where you are now.

Elementary and Middle School

This is the age where a lot of people get their start in origami (it was for me). You're a long way from your origami career—or maybe not: Peter Budai had his first origami book published at age 12. (Now you're saying "oh no, I'm 14, I haven't published a book, and so I must be already over the hill! Don't worry: Peter was exceptional. Most of us are much older before we publish.) So what do you study? In most elementary and middle schools, you don't get a whole lot of choice in the matter of what happens within school, so my advice is primarily about what happens out of school, which is: have fun with it! If you want to do origami as a career, you'll be doing it a long time: and it needs to be fun enough that you'll keep folding for a long time. The best motivator for persistence is that the activity be fun. So fold the things you enjoy, don't bother with the stuff that bores you, and don't worry about what anyone else says about the value, or lack of value, in what you do.

(Actually, if people hassle you too much about what you're doing, that folding is a waste of time, you can point them to some of the books I list below, or the links on my website, and tell them "go read this, then come back and talk to me about 'waste of time.'")

Now, there are a few things you can do to advance your future origami career. The first is, focus on folding cleanly and elegantly. Because you'll need to do that as a professional. So when you've succeeded in folding some new figure from a CP that contains 10,000 creases, that's great as an accomplishment in itself. But you might also ask yourself, "is it as clean and neat as it could be?" And if it's not, you might just try folding it one more time, focusing on the craftsmanship, before you move onto the next thing.

The other thing you can do to advance your future origami prospects is: don't let your schoolwork suffer because origami has pushed it aside. Origami can be—almost certainly is—WAY more fun than the regular curriculum. But the better your grades are, the more likely you'll end up in control of your own destiny down the road.

What books should I get?

At this point, there's no specialized book to recommend; if you choose books based on what looks fun, you can't go wrong. "Recipe books"—books of folding instructions—are just fine for learning a range of techniques and getting exposure to ideas. If you're an intermediate folder looking to take a step up, I'd recommend any of Montroll's books, which are not too hard but expose a wide variety of clever folding ideas. To push your folding skills, the various books from Gallery Origami House and Origami-Shop.com will keep you plenty busy.

High School

In high school, while there are many required courses, you'll likely have some choice in what you take, and so here, you can take an active role in setting yourself up for success in the future of origami. So what should you take? What is the Official Origami Curriculum?

Alas, there's not a "core curriculum" in origami, in the sense of "you absolutely have to take this class." Almost any given class you could live without. But there are a couple of classes that will likely have a beneficial effect down the road.

I would highly recommend taking some art classes in which you create art: drawing, sculpture, or other form of art. Yes, none of those classes will teach you origami (the fine arts still tend to get a bit snooty about origami. Their loss.) The things you are seeking to get out of art classes are knowledge and practice of technique: how to look at a subject and create a representation in another medium. What sorts of things are artistically valued. The importance of quality and craftsmanship.

Also good would be some sort of digital art, involving 3D modeling, rendering, digital fabrication. This will also help your visualization skills when it comes to creating origami, but also, if you end up working as a designer (industrial design involving folding, graphic arts based on digital media), you'll likely make use of similar skills. Now, the pace of digital tool evolution is rapid, so it's almost certain that the specific digital skills you learn in high school will be obsolete by the time you get to college and work (I haven't programmed in my high-school computer language—BASIC—in a really long time). But the general concepts will be useful. A general computer programming course would also help build a conceptual skill set.

If you know me, my love of mathematics, and my use of mathematics in my origami design, you might be expecting me to recommend hard-core mathematics classes. And I suppose I do, with some qualifications: it's not necessary for everyone, and mathematics is certainly not necessary to design very complex and sophisticated origami. One of the great accomplishments of the origami design revolution of the 1990s and 2000s was the development of purely graphical techniques for design, whereby one can design supercomplex figures doing nothing more sophisticated than drawing boxes, circles, and other shapes. So you don't absolutely need fancy math.

But, back to Pasteur: chance favors the prepared mind. There is no question that in the vast space of not-yet-realized origami designs, the vast majority can only be attained by use of computational techniques. If you have an inclination toward mathematics, and want to explore the virgin reaches of origami design space, then I will highly suggest you take the relevant advanced mathematics. In particular, I recommend these classes:

  • Geometry
  • Algebra
  • Trigonometry
  • Linear Algebra (if it's available)

You probably can't get all the way through that without some calculus along the way. That's fine, too. Linear algebra is not often offered in high school, but if you can find a course (perhaps via a local community college), it's pretty useful; it's the mathematical language one uses to describe two- and three-dimensional objects.

Really, though, I don't think you can go wrong with any math course. If I were having a do-over and had the opportunity, I'd take every math course I could. Even esoteric-sounding fields like Number Theory or Group Theory —both of which I've learned a little bit of — have their place and I have found both of them poking up their heads now and then in my origami work.

The course I recommend the most strongly, though, is probably not what you'd expect: every year you should take a course in which you have to write. The name might vary: English Composition, or Literary Criticism. The actual topic doesn't even matter all that much. What is important is that you get practice communicating clearly via the written word.

And why is that important? It's because of the business side of origami. Whether you are selling yourself via your website, or working as an industrial designer or a mechanical engineer, or developing unfolding spacecraft for NASA, you are going to be communicating what you do to others (as I am doing right now). If you want to be able to fold what you want, you need to be in control of your own destiny, and for that to happen, you need to be able to communicate clearly. In the real world, people who can communicate get choice in what they do; people who can't communicate end up taking direction from those who can, regardless of their technical skills.

What books should I get?

As with elementary/middle school recommendations, when it comes to recipe books of folding diagrams, anything that looks fun and pushes your folding ability would be worthwhile.

There are also some good origami books that are more than mere collections of instructions, and if you're thinking about origami as a career, high school is a good time to start looking beyond just following diagrams.

If you'd like to learn more about design, my own Origami Design Secrets is a great place to start.

To learn more about the mathematics of origami, Tom Hull's Project Origami contains mathematics accessible to high schoolers, as well as some more advanced material that you can save till later. Another good book in this category is Joe O'Rourke's How to Fold It. Like Project Origami, it contains material suitable for high school as well as more advanced material that will give you a taste of things to come.

To see how folding shows up in the real world of industrial design, Paul Jackson's Folding Techniques for Designers is a great reference.

College

The obvious question here is: "what college offers a major in origami?" And the answer is: "none of them do." So you're going to have to major in something else that's relevant, and fit origami into a more conventional major. Remember what I said about innovation happening at the boundaries between well-defined fields? Well, that's the situation with professional origami and college. The origami is going fill the space between existing college majors. You just need to find a major (or two) that origami is on the boundary of.

So, what are the conventional majors that origami has connections to? There are several potential candidates, and the one, or ones, for you will depend on the specific direction you want to take after you graduate.

If your inclination is toward the more artistic side—graphic arts, industrial design—then an arts college, such as Rhode Island School of Design, Cooper Union, or Pasadena's Art Center College of Design might be the place. Schools like that will give you a well-rounded artistic and design education and there will be ample opportunities to fit origami into the work you are doing there—and into your eventual artistic career, whether freelance or (more likely) working in a design group.

On the more technical side of things, the field of Mechanical Engineering also has many opportunities for folding. Mechanical engineering is all about tangible physical structures, things that move, and fabrication techniques—all of which couple well to origami. (In fact, there are right now programs funded by the National Science Foundation combining origami with mechanical engineering.) Many of the principles of origami design have analogs in "MechEng" (and vice-versa). If you become a mechanical engineer, there will be ample opportunity to bring origami into what you do—but as a starting engineer post-graduation, what you do will likely be dictated by your manager and your company's projects, so ending up as a mechanical engineer whose day job involves origami each and every day is by no means assured.

Roughly halfway between Mechanical Engineering and Art lies Architecture, and there, too, we find applications of origami (as well as some amazingly talented origami artists, including Peter Engel and Tomohiro Tachi).

Getting even more technical, the field of Computer Science has many connections to origami, including a subfield, Computational Geometry, that has great overlap. It's no coincidence that Computational Geometry includes the first professor whose officially sanctioned research area included origami (that would be Professor Erik Demaine, of MIT—prior to Erik, professors had to sneak their origami in through the side door of their research), as well as the first high-level technical course on the theory of origami (again, taught by Erik at MIT). It seems likely to me that many future innovations in design algorithms and the theory of origami will come from the field of computational geometry, and with a solid grounding in computer science, you will be well equipped to pursue them.

Theoretical computer science is really just a subfield of Mathematics, and Mathematics not only takes in the computational aspects of origami: it describes many other properties of origami as well. Mathematics is the study of patterns and relationships, and origami is all about patterns and relationships. While each of the preceding areas focuses on one or another facet of folding, mathematics is, in some sense, the glue that ties it all together.

If your origami goal is to investigate the theory of origami, both mathematics and computer science could be appropriate majors, but there are some caveats. Many computer science programs focus on programming, since that's what the vast majority of CS majors end up doing in the real world. If you want to take the CS route to origami, you should make sure the school has offerings in theoretical CS and algorithms. Conversely, in the world of professional mathematics research, much of origami mathematics is viewed as "applied" and, in some cases, even looked down upon. It might be worth talking to a few professors in the department before you select your college or major.

What about other fields: physics, materials science, other fields of engineering? They certainly don't preclude a career in origami, and just as certainly can serve as a springboard (my own background is electrical engineering, lasers, and optics). Those NSF research programs I mentioned include professors in many different technical areas: physicists, chemists, biologists, and engineers. They weren't trained in origami to begin with (most of them, anyhow); they picked it up and learned what they needed to.

And that brings me to graduate school: master's degree and Ph.D. Most of what I've said about the college curriculum applies as well to graduate schools—which may not even be needed. On the artistic side of things, a Bachelor's or Master's is a perfectly good terminal degree. For more technical areas, a Ph.D. might be very useful. A Ph.D. is essentially training to carry out independent research, and independence is one of the things that might make it possible to work origami into your day-to-day work activity. If you do go on for a Ph.D., the schools that are open to you depend on what your undergraduate major was, and on your grades, senior thesis, and contacts you made during your undergraduate years. When considering a Ph.D. program, the specific department you're in doesn't matter near as much as the research specialty of your major professor. So, when you're considering a postgraduate program, you should look at professors who are working on something that includes (or could possibly include) folding.

What books should I get?

There are academic books on origami, and you should at least read through a few of them. A good overview of academic folding can be found in the series Origami3, Origami4, and Origami5 (and, coming in 2015, Origami6). The mathematics of origami is covered in Hull's Project Origami, and a deep look at the computational aspects of folding are to be found in Demaine and O'Rourke's Geometric Folding Algorithms: Linkages, Origami, and Polyhedra. However, at this level, books are only a small portion of the available literature. There is much now available in field-specific professional journals. The field of academic origami is fast-changing, so rather than suggesting specific journals, I will suggest instead that you do your own literature searches using your university's library services (and/or Google Scholar), and keep a regular lookout for new papers in your field.

Final thoughts

I started this article to answer the question I am often asked by people of all ages, which is usually some variation of "how do I become a famous origami person?" And I hope the thoughts above provide a little assistance. But I think that the world of professional origami is a lot like the world of professional music and other performance fields: 90% of the practitioners are starving artists. Another 9% get steady work and make a living at it; and 1% get to be famous. A lot of the time, the difference between the 9% and the 1% is nothing more than luck, or being in the right place at the right time (and having that "prepared mind," of course). So I would suggest not setting your sights on the 1%, but rather, aim to be one of those who get steady work. To do that, you can make sure your education is contributing; learn the standards of business; strive to produce quality work, whatever it is; and be ready when the 1% chance comes along. Even if it never comes, you will have had a great time.

Comments

I know there are many more full- and part-time professional origami artists than those that I named, and many of you undoubtedly have thoughts about what people should be studying/doing in preparation for an origami career. Please feel free to share your own experiences and thoughts in the comments; click "Add new comment" (above) or "Reply" (below). -- Robert

The upcoming issue of The Paper (#116) will bring our readers an article about Nancy Hall, an editor who is not an origami professional herself, but she has been cutting a niche in the publishing industry. Her formula seems to be "a cool idea + a great artist(s) + a fun design = an awesome book". So here is another career even for non-origami people who like origami!

I've done some limited professional work on the side. Much of my gigs is by word of mouth, having started out by teaching and demonstrating origami at cultural events. Rachel Katz, who's made a comfortable living at origami teaching, years ago talked to me about how to go about teaching origami at schools. I've never gotten around to fully investing myself into this, but occasionally get hired to do workshops at schools- again, mostly through word of mouth. But one could easily promote oneself as I think there is a market out there for origami teachers as much as there is (maybe even more so) for origami designers commissioned for professional designs.

I do some informal self-promotion by leaving origami tips at places I shop and eat at. These places sometimes let the origami sit at their registers and other customers will inquire for my contact info.

I've also obtained permission from designers to sell their work that I've folded on a limited scale. Sometimes this has led to other gigs, as well.

As much as I have a love for origami, it has not led me down the path into pursuing it as a full-time venture.

Michael
Have Paper, Will Travel