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The Messiness of Design

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:

We started with a simple, abstract image

We started with a simple, abstract image

Then after several hours of hard work and 10 rounds of work, here’s the design that we ended up with:

We ended with a rich and interesting design that told a story all of its own

We ended with a rich and interesting design that told a story all of its own

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.

Conclusion

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!

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Also from Echo Enduring Media:

An Unfolding Tale

About the Author

Matt Ward is a digital artist who lances freely under the moniker of Echo Enduring Media, and specializes in graphics design, illustration and writing. He is also the Creative Director for Highland Marketing, a creative direct marketing company based out of Waterloo, Ontario. You can follow Matt on Twitter

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Comments

Dec 1, 2010

Les James says:

I love when I make a mistake that stops me in my tracks and turns me in a better direction. There needs to be an official term for it. It usually sounds like “Whoops… wait… oh snap!”.

Moments like these are rare but when they happen it seems to take my work to a completely new level. I wish I knew how to make these moments on demand when I feel like I’m hitting the wall. But manufacturing mistakes just makes it a process and defeats the whole purpose.

Anyway, great post Matt. I really enjoyed it.

Dec 1, 2010

Andrew Peacock says:

I certainly agree that messiness is an element of all design. However, I think it is present more so in certain types of design than others.

In web design specifically messiness in the process is never a good thing, especially when working with a client, as you said in the article. But when working with code that could stop working if a word is spelled incorrectly, changes and hiccups in the process are never good. While it is easy to completely change a design because of a new idea or new inspiration, it is not always the best, as it involves many changes to code and other things.

When designing for print, or designing images though, messiness is a great thing, as is evident through the piece that is displayed at the top of the post.

While messiness is certainly good and definitely brings out some of the best ideas, it is not always the most practical practice.

Dec 1, 2010

Darin Kirschner says:

The best line in this (or perhaps any design) blog post is:

if there is no room for error can there really be any room for brilliance?

I love this and it is so true. it is also why I love the fact I’m classically trained as opposed to being a purely digital designer. The tool, the computer, tends to over clean up a design, causing many really creative solutions to require extra effort to make them match the concept. The ability to scratch out messy drawings all over a napkin, piece of scratch paper or a handy notebook is often the difference between success and failure for me.

Great post and right on the money! I particularly liked the cooking parallel. My cooking is often messy, driving my organized & fastidious wife a little crazy.

It is this inherent messiness that makes bidding design jobs so frustrating for designers and producers alike.

Dec 1, 2010

Evan Mullins says:

well put. I really agree with you about the process needing to be messy. I like the cooking analogy as well.

Dec 2, 2010

Geoff says:

Bollocks. Design’s about selecting relevant ideas out of a wealth of possible ideas which float around a given subject, in order to give a coherent message to the target audience. ie, it’s about being orderly, not about being messy.

Messy thinking leads to messy graphic design, which in most cases is unattractive to the consumer, and thus fails in its objective, ie selling products & services.

Jan 12, 2011

blackberry servisi says:

thank you sharing
was a great article.

Jan 30, 2011

Andy Uppole says:

well put. I really agree with you about the process needing to be messy. I like the cooking analogy too.

Mar 18, 2011

GR says:

Great article. Brilliant thoughts are rarely organized, but they always seem to fall in place on the final product.

Jul 22, 2011

Jorge | mercado de afiliados says:

The disorder is part of creativity.
Creativity is part of instinct.

Feb 20, 2012

Aiden says:

I like the comparison to cooking :) Good article. Thanks.

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