This Week's Challenge: Realpolitik
This Week's Challenge: Rifftastic

Reflecting on the Mess


We become more comfortable under pressure when we see our design efforts as a process, not an end product. So we have to train ourselves to be more comfortable with waste as a byproduct of the creative process.

Or, to put it another way: Knowing when to walk away from a design idea can make you a better designer. You just need to have enough ideas to know which to walk away from.

You don't have any boundaries as a creative thinker, except for fear: fear that you'll come up short with terrible ideas, fear that you won't know enough about the subject to provide an informed response, fear that you'll run out of time before you are satisfied by your design output. While such fears are oft battled by artists and designers alike, they are self-imposed and reinforced by our peers. "Designer's block" can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. (As one of my colleagues Ric Ewing likes to say: A race-car driver should never stare at the boundary wall if they're worried about crashing into it.)

These fear-driven situations most often occur because we aren't being generative, papering the walls with our thoughts and sketches. We're tapping our pencil against the notebook thinking about how we have no ideas. There's nothing for our minds to react to other than what's inside them. An idea discarded in the mind is useless to a designer, and quickly buried in a tangle of neurons soon to be obliterated by caffeine, alcohol, or accidentally smacking into the dude in front of you in the coffee and/or alcohol line because you're checking your Facebook status.

An idea captured through whatever vehicle you choose—computer, pencil, food sculpture—is the snowball rolling down the mountain that slowly incites an avalanche. And you need an avalanche of ideas before you can start being a critic about which ones are rockstar. Such avalanches also serve as shrines to progress. They make our bosses and sometimes even our clients stop wringing their hands about a project outcome and stand back a few paces, fearful of being buried in the haystack before they're presented with the best damn needle you can muster.

So, backing up a few steps from the soapbox for a moment: What value is there in walking away from your ideas?

By abandoning them, you can create space in your mind for them to intermingle and cross-pollinate. This can lead to those aha! moments where various strains of creative DNA recombine to form a new species of solution.

Last night, I had my students from my 80 Works for Designers classes over to catch up. In our conversation, we shared our experiences of "solving" 80 design challenges, where we all had anywhere from 15 minutes to 2 hours to create a rough sketch of a design solution. I place the word "solved" in quotes because without fully executing that sketch at a high level of fidelity, we didn't always know if our original ideas would survive unscathed or fall to pieces.

One of the strange byproducts of living through such a process—layered on top of our full-time responsibilities as designers, where every project had to end in a completed deliverable—was that we were acquiring tacit knowledge about where our boundaries existed as purely conceptual thinkers. We had trouble finding them, and probably you would struggle to bang into them as well.

This was quite different from learning how to close down to a final design direction and execute it via the appropriate medium. It made us more willing to suspend judgment, step backward from the precipice that would lead to a muddy, murky swim (courtesy of Photoshop), and consider further iterations that diverged from the first idea/not always best idea. In short: I no longer desired executional completion early in the design process, and I rarely saw the same impulse in my students. Besides, what a designer carries from any final, tangible form they've constructed is a somewhat false sense of completion. "Well, now that I'm done with that logo, I can move on to a new project."

Being done, however, only happens when you run out of time, client money, or patience. Perhaps a better word is satisfied, and while we often are able to deliver artifacts that meet our client's level of satisfaction, it's the mark of a strong designer to be fairly unsatisfied no matter how amazing your comps may look to a client's eye. They need to meet your standard first… though your false sense of completion is also marred by the realities of providing a service to your client, pinned to a set of deliverables that meets a specified need. You could hand a finished logo to your client and they'd make some horrific improvement to it. Or you could instantiate it across your client's online properties, and they could be acquired by a holding company that forces a complete rebrand. The list of possible ways that your perfect logo could be violated is endless.

So, perhaps what I'm saying is this: Our clients and peers may judge our output as the measure of our effectiveness as designers, but what most satisfies us creatively may come from a greater breadth of exploration through the process. We will never have enough time for an eternity of pencil sketches, so we need to learn to best use what time we do have, at the appropriate points in the process.

What kind of form does this knowledge take, if we never have a chance to fully realize the design iterations we've been considering? Whatever form it needs to in our physical world, except unvocalized thoughts blown away in a hot summer wind.

Without a mirror to hold our mind up to, we cannot effectively reflect upon what we create.



Thank you - so well said.

After about 15 years of struggling with this, I've finally learned how to stretch that not-committed-to-any-single-design-solution phase of a project as long as humanly possible.

My work is much better for it, and my clients don't seem the least bit traumatized by the indecision. They believe me when I tell them that we're 'staying open to finding a much better solution'.

Matt Currie

Great post David!

There's some excellent phrases in here on the value of making ideas tangible eg. "An idea discarded in the mind is useless to a designer..."

To build on Barb's comment, I observe that not only can this non-committal phase make clients nervous, it can also be extremely frustrating for novice designers and/or other collaborators.

I think that prototyping in the wild can really help with this nervousness and frustration. Prototyping like this says to the team (and the client) "we're not just exploring a wide range of possible solutions on paper, we're showing them to people, testing them out and evaluating them - we're moving forward."

David Sherwin

Thanks Matt & Barb--

Those are really good comments, and I agree that dealing with not only the ambiguity of really challenging design problems, but also the ambiguity in not committing to a solution to those problems, can be quite a friction point on a team. Prototyping in the wild is totally a great way to go, and we do it a lot at my day job. :)

Best, David

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