113 posts categorized "Creative Process"

On Letting Go


A thousand books scattered about the apartment, stacked in knee-high piles. All of the bookshelves bare. This housecleaning project was unplanned, but had been on our mind for months—reviewing every single book we'd accumulated over the past 10 years, and deciding which ones we could live without. Deadline: we had to wrap it up before the end of the long weekend. Otherwise, my wife and I couldn't make it out the front door.

Books have always been my worst vice. A lifelong addiction, scented with ink and glue. Being inside a bookstore requires great restraint, as I'd like nothing more than to run off with an endcap of science books, and perhaps swipe a popular novel or two on the way out the door while laughing maniacally.

It wasn't always this way. Through most of high school and college, I was able to get by just with the library. When I was in graduate school, however, I would acquire and read 3 to 4 books a week—for work, for pleasure, for class, for my full-time job as an editor. In the mail, I would receive dozens of review copies a month. The bookshelves grew fuller and fuller, and since many books were referred to in class, I had no excuse to get rid of them. It wasn't until a hurricane blew through town and flooded our townhouse's basement—destroying about a hundred of my books—that I felt heartbroken at having to recycle all those books. Giving away or selling books, even since then, has always been a struggle.

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Upcoming Events: AIGA Into the Woods, InfoCamp Seattle, IxDA Touch and Beyond

I thought I'd share some upcoming events and conferences that I'll be attending—and a few that I'll be participating in!


Touch and Beyond: New Forms of Interaction
Thursday, September 16th, 7 PM
frog design Seattle, 413 Pine St. 2nd Floor

This free IxDA Seattle/Interact event will be a round-robin presentation of work featuring projects from: frog design, Hornall Anderson (HAX), T-Mobile Creation Center and Wirestone. All the projects will be focused on exploring the boundaries of gestural and touch interaction, grounded in actual project work. Space will be limited to the first 120 people to show up, doors open at 6:30 PM. More details here...


InfoCamp 2010
October 2–3, 2010

This unconference, focused on information architecture and user experience, will happen at Seattle University in a month or so. I'm looking forward to learning a ton from our local community, and also suggesting and leading a breakout session—which I hope to do as more of a collaborative workshop as opposed to a talk. Topic still TBA, but I've been mulling the subject of how to brainstorm interaction models...


AIGA Seattle's Into the Woods
October 15-17, 2010

This is a really cool and intimate conference, as well as a relaxing getaway to the Sleeping Lady Lodge in Leavenworth, Washington. It was a complete recharge of my creative batteries when I attended in 2007. I'm really excited to be attending this year's event and also having a chance to present the following workshop on Friday, October 15th:

Designing with the Body: If you want to find a great idea, it helps to start with a lot of them. David Sherwin of Frog Design will show you how to use techniques rooted in your physical body, elements of improvisational theater and other sense-based skills like taste and smell to generate new ideas for all sorts of creative projects. Get out of your head and into your body.

The presenters are not to be missed—such as Vivian Rosenthal from Tronic, Gail Anderson from SpotCo, Steve Frykholm from Herman Miller, and Alan Cobb from Albert Kahn Associates—as well as the other workshops through the whole weekend.

How Sending Postcards to Strangers Made Me a Better Designer

Poetry Postcards

Something people with creative jobs always struggle with, myself included, is that creativity often likes to take its sweet damned time. We're forced into all sorts of habits and rituals that we feel will help us get to ideas more quickly. Totems of one such ritual sits on my desk: a pile of postcards at least three inches tall, sent from people all over the world. They serve as a reminder that creativity flows from well-considered constraint, married to daily discipline.

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A Random Walk

A random walk

"Combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought." —Albert Einstein

An eternity of row houses: crumbling brick facades shadowed by rusted metal awnings painted over in a crackle of white, like giant bookshelves. A soccer ball rests in the yard, black dyed fabric panels scuffed away by Converse-clad feet scuffling across evenly measured concrete paths. Dull grey sky, lazy rain. I watch individual raindrops appearing on the windowsill, one by one, merging into larger and larger droplets.

In the back alley between homes, I can hear the chuckling of a car starter for at least fifteen minutes, over and over again—it woke me from a deep sleep. From bed, I strain my neck to look through the blinds, spying a fire-engine red Camaro, a man in a white wife-beater behind the wheel. Finally, the engine turns over, settling into a deep, saturnine roar above the constant pitter-patter of a cleansing rain. Engine purring like an overweight cat, the man eases his 20-year-old dream into reverse, slowly backs it up ten feet to block in his garage, which is overflowing with spare parts and packing boxes ever-flowing with everything from old blenders to scrap wood pieces. The engine dies.

I sit at the window, watching him stare off into space.

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ChangeOrder 2010 Summer Bookshelf

Summer bookshelf 10

Looking for a good book to cozy up with this summer?

I've been saving up book recommendations for this coming holiday season (much in the spirit of 2009-2010 and 2008-2009), but I couldn't wait to recommend the following books for your designery beach-reading pleasure. Feel free to also throw into your cart the pre-sale for Creative Workshop: 80 Challenges to Sharpen Your Design Skills, which went up on Amazon.com today.

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Slides from "Better Ideas Faster: How to Brainstorm More Effectively" at HOW 2010

Here's the slides from my presentation today at HOW 2010, "Better Ideas Faster: How to Brainstorm More Effectively."

Download the presentation from SlideShare.net. You can also download the handouts that went along with the talk at this link.

It was an honor to present today to a great crowd of over 750 people, and I was especially thrilled to highlight the fantastic design work from the following designers in my upcoming book from HOW Design Press, Creative Workshop: 80 Challenges to Sharpen Your Design Skills...

Sean Baker
Donnie Dinch
Meg Doyle
Jarred Elrod
Claire Kohler
Matt McElvogue
Meta Newhouse
Mark Notermann
Jessica Thrasher
Lenny Vella

Hope to see you on Wednesday morning, 9 AM for my panel discussion on creativity!

Designing What Remains

Image number 346724187 from Flickr.com | York Lethbridge - KISS project - all rights reserved

The streets blurred gray in the early morning rain. My cab driver, unusually chatty for five in the morning, tells me that he works four days a week at his dispatch in SODO, tending the lost and found. He rattles off what bounty you might find in their basement office: mobile phones, articles of clothing, wallets, keys, umbrellas. If items linger too long on the shelves, they're donated to charity. The mobile phones, after waiting for a few months, are shipped overseas for use by U.S. soldiers.

Recently, a new type of item was left on his desk by a spooked driver: a box of ashes.

"It was hard to believe that someone would just get out of a cab and forget their grandmother," he said. There weren't any identifying marks on the box, so they couldn't chase down whom was responsible for the cremains. "I put the ashes on the shelf and hoped that the family would come and pick them up."

Later that week, another surprise was waiting for him when he arrived at work: another box of ashes.

"Another driver found it in the back seat and knew which fare had left it," he said, accelerating into the HOV lane. "He tried to get back in touch with her, but she wouldn't answer her phone. So we just put the new box up on the shelf by the other one."

I was aghast at the notion of two people abandoning the remains of loved (or not so loved) ones—but that feeling was also tinged with shame.

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"Design Zen" on Design Mind on Air


Last November, after I'd written "Zen and the Art of Design" for the current "Work-Life" issue of Design Mind magazine, I sat down with Chris Sallquist to talk about some of my experiences traveling through Japan.

Our discussion became this fun podcast on Design Mind on Air, "Zen Design", which is accompanied by 14 photos I took while traveling through Japan. I hope you enjoy it.

"Zen and the Art of Design" in Design Mind Magazine

Illustration from Zen and the Art of Design

A carpet of clouds flows over the mountains, sending sheets of rain into the valley. I am staring at a painting that’s come to life, like a Sumi-e masterpiece. In this rendition, however, power lines extend across a far-off peak, and an unused baseball diamond is exposed through a break in the evergreens. Half-visible through the branches is the top edge of the Daimon, an ornate red gate built and then rebuilt on the spot where Kobo Daishi, founder of the Shingon sect of Japanese Buddhism, was said to have first entered the community of Koyasan, led by a black dog and a white dog that were lent to him by a manifestation of the hunter-god Kariba-myojin.

I yearned to capture the scene in a photograph or a rough pencil sketch, but I had hiked up the muddy path with only my passport and an umbrella. My wife had sent me out into the rain while she napped in our room at Hoon-in, one of the many monasteries that allow travelers to rent lodging and to observe their daily practice. During our first week here, she had watched me take almost a thousand photographs and journal obsessively while we wandered through many of the places I’d idealized after taking an abiding interest in Buddhism, from the popular Shingon sect rooted in Koyasan to the more direct practices of Zen Buddhism that I have been studying over the past few years. But that afternoon, weary of seeing a camera glued to my eye socket, she noted that I seemed to be more focused on shooting photos than experiencing each place and taking pictures when so moved.

She was right. I had been a glutton for images during our first days on Mt. Koya, as I took in the staggering beauty of it all: the ringing of prayer bells from more than 70 temples at dawn, noon, and dusk; the feel of centuries-old wood continually tested by brutal winter months when the mountain roads become impassable; the morning meditation with syllabic chanting of the Diamond Sutra leavened by the pungent waft of incense; and the small shops selling pink and blue tea cakes or mochi expelled from large machines designed to pound rice flour into hand-wrapped treats. This place could not be captured in my sketches and raw files — and yet there I was, blindly recording what I had not even taken the time to sit with, to observe and understand in mind and body.

This was an ongoing problem in my life, one I had hoped the trip would help me resolve...

Read the full essay online in the new "Work-Life" issue of frog's Design Mind magazine, or buy your own print copy here.

Focusing on the Climb


Rock climbing is physical problem solving, a process of continually resisting of gravity (and physical harm). In a way, it's a kind of controlled falling. Similarly, design is a kind of controlled failing, ever climbing towards a "certain" goal without any certainty at the start of the process of how the end product will really look.

In both sports, there is a dollop of artistic Yin in our risk-filled Yang, and a similar level of required focus in how you fulfill the work without harming yourself—whether through willful distraction or negligence.

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Review of "Glimmer" in the Designer's Review of Books


The further I’ve progressed in my career as designer, the harder it’s become to share with others exactly what I do.

First, I managed layout at a magazine and bootstrapped a few websites in thrilling Adobe PageMill. Then, within a design studio, I was responsible for creating brands and annual reports—with little to no formal training to the otherwise. Add in a number of years in advertising and marketing, leaven it with a few more of user research and wireframing, and set to “Puree”. When I try to describe to my family what I do nowadays as an interaction designer, the confusion level continues to increase.

Now I don’t need to try and explain anymore. I can just send them a copy of Warren Berger’s extraordinarily well-written book, Glimmer: How Design Can Transform Your Life, Your Business, and Maybe Even the World.

This is the first book about the process of design as it’s practiced at its highest levels in our profession, written by an expert journalist for the layperson, that describes exactly how designers think about and view the world. It is the product of hundreds of interviews with today’s top designers, across all major disciplines of design, cross-referenced with deep reading into the texts that have informed the growth of our profession, then distilled into plain English that anyone can easily understand. Along the way, stories regarding OXO Good Grips, the One Laptop Per Child program, the Truth anti-smoking campaign, Bruce Mau’s Massive Change exhibit, Architecture for Humanity, Proctor & Gamble, TOMS Shoes, and many others are woven through the narrative, illustrating key points regarding design concepts, principles, and sustainability practices with illustrations and sketches. It also includes a good number of everyday people who came to the design profession late in life, after they had their first “glimmer” moment.

Continue reading at The Designer's Review of Books

A Hundred to One

Dog ISO headline

When I first moved to Seattle, I freelanced at what was considered to be the meat grinder of the Seattle agency world. My first assignment was to serve as a production artist for a series of pet food ads. I was provided with layouts in QuarkXPress 4.0, consisting of a few dozen black and white portraits of happy Scotties, terriers, and other sedan-sized pups. The traffic person then handed me sheet of paper completely filled with three- to six-word phrases. "These are the headlines for the ads due today," she said, and scooted away.

I spent the next few minutes puzzling over the page. Some of the lines made no sense to me, outlining in scientific terms the benefits of Pet Food Special Formulation A to Crappy Pet Food Type B. Others were clever puns and riffs on animal lingo. The rest of the lines seemed like doggrel, and at the time I didn't really understand why the writer had even included them.

Until that point, I'd never been exposed to the full brain dump of a creative person, and while I could see which lines were pretty good, I was a bit stumped as to which would make the best ads.

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The Proper Place for Procrastination


I've been putting off writing about procrastination for some time now. I thought I knew what I wanted to say, but now that the subject has rattled around my brain for so many days, I'm not quite so sure.

This is the curse of being an iterative design thinker—the longer you mull over solutions for a big problem, the more options you end up considering for the result. Possibilities shift and morph in your mind like taffy. Arguments and counter-arguments scrape and spark, misaligned gears in a house-sized machine that keeps chugging along no matter how hard you try to feed it another subject... unless you're dealing with a well-defined problem. Solutions can appear fully formed, like magic. These "rabbit out of the hat" moments seem like the norm in our community, but we are rarely clocked upside the head with a stellar idea, ten feet tall and luminous, just like the sign letting travelers know that you have arrived in Las Vegas.

Gigantic problems must be chipped away, slowly but surely, until the solution emerges from paring away excess. Opportunities come out of nowhere, but the ideas in our mind must be given form before they can be regarded as proper. Otherwise, we're just thinking some more.

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The First Law of Design Dynamics


Much like the First Law of Thermodynamics, which expresses the conservation of energy between various states, my imagined First Law of Design Dynamics states: "We are unsolvable problems."

Or, to put it another way: Problems persist, and we are an expression of them.

The problems we face as human beings are wound together so tightly, they only improve or degrade over time against a man-made metric—they do not go away. We create them, we attempt to solve them, and those solutions are expressed through the lens of our humanity.

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How to Throw a "Part with Your Art Party"

Donnie Dinch and his lovely girlfriend hold up work by myself and the photographer Alison Braun


My wife and I were staring into our closet at a big bundle of framed photographs we'd accumulated over the past eight years.

"What are we going to do with all of these?" I said. It was unlikely we'd ever show them again or own a place large enough to accommodate them all. Wouldn't they look better in someone's home? At this point, would it make sense to just give them away?

"Let's throw a 'Part with Your Art Party,'" my wife said. Hence, a plan was hatched.

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Do You Use Ideation Questions?

Tough Questions

Don't try to chop down a difficult design problem with one swoop of your mental ax. Instead, chip the problem apart using ideation questions.

In their simplest form, ideation questions are restatements of issues that form the basis of a systemic problem. As an example, it would be difficult to attack the following challenge provided by a client: "We want you to improve the health care system." The problem, as it is currently stated, is much too wicked to approach with a measure of intelligence.

So, you'd start to try and approach that stated problem by breaking it down into questions. First, we'd restate the problem as, "What should we do to improve the heatlh care system?" Answering that question, from at least one angle, might be the broadly stated goal of your effort with your client. At this point, you can start to break that massive question down into a series of ideation questions that surface latent issues. How do people access health care services? Who provides those health care services? What people are not currently served by health care services? And so forth.

From here, the fun really begins. Select a key question out of those that you've written, then start to ideate around a key component of it as a tightly focused question. If we choose "How do people access health care services?" as our starting point, then we generate a series of questions that directly address the root cause of issues within it. "How can signing up for health care become easier?" "How can we more quickly admit people to emergency services?"

You can see how these focused questions speak to the initial challenge posed by the client, but have tangible outcomes. You could spend hours writing and answering questions when using this process, but the trick here is to be very selective in ideating against the questions that are most specific and most intriguing to you. The resulting ideas that emerge from your brainstorm will be more actionable as a result.

This approach may sound like common sense, but there is always a point in the design process where we begin to build our design execution off a set of baseline assumptions. Using ideation questions will force you to face assumptions buried in big, messy problems that we'd like to try and solve, but don't quite know where to begin.

And you can already see where this is helpful when you're working to frame the desired outcome of a client project, before you even begin...

Timeboxing for Creative Professionals

Creative ideation

Being creative is a mind game.

No matter how much time you have for ideation, you can always come up with a good idea. It just takes extra time and energy to identify which of those ideas is the best one to pursue, then iterate on it to achieve some polish. This can be accomplished through the use of timeboxing. This is a technique that is regularly used in agile software development, but is also quite adaptable and useful for any creative professional to improve their speed to an idea.

Timeboxing is also excellent for defeating procrastinators. Most designers—myself included—ruminate subconsciously on a possible solution for days on end. This is a luxury of time that isn't feasible if you're working regularly to tight deadlines. And besides, most designers have trouble meeting their deadlines no matter how far off they twinkle in the distance.

So, what is timeboxing? And how can you use it on your next project?

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