posted by Matt Ward on Nov 30, 2010.
I think we’ve probably all experiences some form of messiness in the design process—those disorderly, often unplanned and unexpected moments which can ultimately infuse a design with so much character. It is my belief that these moments are an important part of the process, and in this article I will try to explain why.
I’m going to start with a simple statement: design should be messy. When I say this, however, I am referring to the process, not the final result. That should not be messy at all, but rather very carefully and meticulously crafted, with everything in its proper place. But when it comes to all the thought and labour that actually goes into the creation of any design, I sincerely believe it is to our great benefit to simply let a little messiness (or even a lot) into the entire process.
After all, design is a creative act, and when we look at other forms of creation, there seems to be all kinds of messiness, though perhaps to varying degrees. Cooking for instance, is a messy process. There’s all that cutting (leading to excess throwaways), mixing of ingredients, brushing, basting and kneading. Juices and oils run freely and pots, pans, utensils and dishes invariably are dirtied and need to be washed. Granted, some people are messier than others—just ask my wife about the state of our kitchen after I cook a meal—but some degree of messiness is just part of the process.
The same is also true of painting. Paint itself is a wet substance that has an uncanny ability to get everywhere. It covers, stains and whenever you pick up a brush and paints, you can pretty much expect to get a little messy. The same is true pottery. Clay is also an incredibly messy medium.
In the Context of Design
But how does this all relate to design? An argument could probably be made that the older, traditional techniques that were often used in design—such as actual, physical typesetting and paste up—were inherently messy in and of themselves. A certain perspective on the world might even suggest that, through our shift to computers and digital techniques, we have lost some of the natural, hands-on involvement within the design process.
That’s really not what I’m talking about, though. All the messiness of food, paint and clay is merely a physical manifestation of a larger cognitive process.
No matter which way you slice it, design is a process. Like a story, it has a beginning, a middle and an end, with each stage building on those that came before it. It takes time to come to fruition, time which is full of ideas and sketches, concepts and mockups, revisions, counter revisions and still more revisions. It is fluid, evolving and ever transforming, even as it is continuously guided by the brief, the project requirements and the fundamental concepts of design itself.
Through all of that, you can’t help but expect a little messiness to sneak its way in.
The Contagion Example
As a prime example of this, we can turn to my experience playing “Contagion” with Radu Chelariu (aka Sickdesigner) a few months ago. Inspired by Layer Tennis, Radu’s idea was to work together on a single design, flipping source files back and forth across the web (and the Atlantic in our case) and building on each others work to create a fantastic, final design.
Here’s what we started with:
Then after several hours of hard work and 10 rounds of work, here’s the design that we ended up with:
As we moved from that initial abstraction through to the finished design, the process was full of awesome, creative messiness. From stage to stage, different elements were shaped and reshaped, coloured and recoloured, created, destroyed added and removed as we riffed off of each others creations. You can check out the entire process over on Radu’s blog. You can also check out other installments of Contagion that Radu did with Sergiu Mocain, Brian Purkiss and Bill Chambers.
Aside from just being a ton of fun, the thing that I love about these contagion posts is the way they ultimately capture the essence of design. By revealing the design in process, stage by stage, we not only see the various triumphs, but also the failures. On one hand, we see those elements that may have seemed great in our minds, only to fall flat in the execution; on the other, we are also witness to how extra work was undertaken to fix these things, either by tweaking them, transforming them or removing them entirely!
All of this reveals the simple but profound truth that real design is not a collection of snap on parts. A website, for example, is not the Mr. Potato head of the Internet.
Welcome to the Machine
Too often, design can be looked at as this kind of mechanized process—a sentiment which has surely been compounded exponentially in this age of computers and other digital tools. There seems to be this problematic assumption, generally on the part of those standing on the outside and looking in, that we’re little more than machine operators. Somehow it is assumed that, while we keep our computers online and running, it is ultimately the machine itself that does the work.
I doubt that I would have to talk to more than a few designers to find people who would vehemently and passionately argue against this position until they’re red in the face. In fact, all I would have to do is look in a mirror! Anyone who knows anything about design will realize that a computer is just a tool, just like a pencil or a paintbrush. It is powerful and flexible, but still just a tool.
I have to wonder, though, if we might not allow ourselves to be influenced, even unintentionally, by this way of thinking. How often do we strive for efficiency, for productivity, for moving from one stage of the process to another with as few hiccups or interruptions as possible? How much to we contain ourselves to a particular methodology? How often do we work within a defined schedule and curse the client who causes us to miss those looming, all-important deadlines?
Now I have nothing against processes, workflows and schedules. Nor am I rebelling against the forces of efficiency and productivity. I just have to question whether immersing ourselves too deeply in these concepts might not be a form of human mechanization? If it’s all so clean, streamlined and ultimately industrialized, are we leaving any room at all for error, mistakes and failure?
More importantly, if there is no room for error can there really be any room for brilliance?
While I certainly won’t make any claims to brilliance myself, I don’t think that I am alone in having had the kind of experience in which something may go terribly wrong or just doesn’t work for whatever reason, but which somehow plants the seed of a new idea or a different direction. Perhaps it was a line or a shape, the interplay of colour or just an interesting juxtaposition. Whatever the idea, it takes you down that different and vastly more successful road that leads to a killer final design. In the end, it may be totally different from the “mess” you originally made, but the simple fact remains that without that original mess (or mistake/failure), the final idea would never have come to you.
With this in mind, doesn’t it seem that there is a certain, undeniable value in the messiness of design? Often this is exactly where the greatest moments of creativity occur, where genius (if we can use the word here) or genuine inspiration strikes right out of the blue. At its core, I think this is also the value of the Contagion works. With those, the designs were not created through any predictable or traceable process, but rather through the rough and sometimes chaotic interchange of ideas between two creative minds!
So don’t shy away from a bit of messiness in your design process. Accept it. Better yet, embrace it! Eventually, I think you may find that your best work is coming out of those sporadic, unplanned moments where a design seems to implode upon itself, only to have a new and stronger idea emerge like the Phoenix from scattered ashes of your work. When that happens, more often than not the previous failure becomes a success in its own right!
What about you? Do you embrace those moments of messiness and disorder in your design work? Do you find that some of your best work has come out of those very moments? I’d love to read your thoughts on this!Post A Comment
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