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Origami Challenge #6: Limit Complexity of Folds

In previous challenges, I’ve mentioned the benefits of setting up parameters for your design explorations. Limiting your options forces you to be resourceful with whatever options you have and allows your creativity and vision to come to the forefront. 

Don’t get me wrong – super-complex origami is astounding. The artistry displayed in Eric Joisel’s Commedia dell’Arte characters, Satoshi Kamiya’s Ancient Dragon, Robert J. Lang’s insects, and so on are remarkable and undoubtedly something to aspire to, if that kind of origami excites you. But complexity is a whole bunch of simplicity put together. Mastering the fundamentals will set you on the path to mastering the intricate, complex models. This is important both for your folders and for yourself as a designer. 

In the 1970’s, a British origami artist named John Smith became particularly interested in how origami could be used for early childhood development. Paper folding has been incorporated into early childhood development for a long time. For example, Friedrich Froebel incorporated it into his curriculum when he designed his school system in the early 1800’s. John Smith decided that one way to encourage young and disabled children to engage with paper folding was to limit the complexity of the folds involved. He compiled and designed models that only used Mountain and Valley Folds. No Squash folds, Reverse Folds, Sinks, Crimps, etc. Since the models only used Mountain and Valley folds, he called it “Pure Land” Origami. 

I found my way to this kind of challenge by designing models that I could teach within Taro Yaguchi’s Origami Teaching Method. The method organizes the essential folds and bases of origami into a martial arts style progression, with six levels of five folds each. It begins with folding the paper in half (corner to corner for the Diagonal Fold, and edge to edge for the Book Fold) and works all the way up to Open and Closed Double Sink Folds. When I worked with students using this Method, I wanted more models to practice within a certain level before moving up to learn more folds. If a student was still mastering the first level, they only knew Diagonal Fold, Book Fold, Kite Fold, Blintz Fold, and Cabinet Fold. Therefore, they needed models that only incorporated those folds so they could practice those maneuvers and work on their folding precision. 

Simple models are incredibly useful. I’ve needed simple versions of a lot of subjects, some of which I’ve found and some of which I’ve had to design. If I’m folding on-demand at a party or corporate event, I don’t have time to do a 60-step intermediate model. If I’m teaching a workshop or at an event and the participants request a specific subject, I need a simple enough version that I can easily remember, they’ll be able to execute quickly, and won’t take a long time to teach. Trying to teach a Closed Sink Fold in a beginner workshop… I don’t recommend it. Not because some people won’t be able to execute it, but because it might discourage people from an art form that I truly believe can bring immense joy to everyone, no matter how artistic they consider themselves or what level of complexity they decide to pursue it to. 

Limiting the complexity of the folds requires you as a designer to get especially creative. You have to solve design problems without all of your fancy tools and methods, and makes you ask what it is you really care about in your model. This touches on a couple of upcoming challenges, but let’s say you’re designing a Giant Panda and you know you want the color change – how can you accomplish that with only your limited folds? What is the essence of the subject you’re working on and what elements can you put aside in order to focus on creating an essential model. Or, can you create a model that looks intricate but only utilizes simple folds? Creating models like that is both impressive as a designer and a beautiful gift to your folders – models that are simultaneously accessible and satisfying. 


  • Lister, David. “Pureland.” British Origami.

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