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On The Emotional Cycle of Design

posted by Matt Ward on Jan 26, 2011.

As a designer, I’ve found that my work can be full of highs and lows. Sometimes I can pumped and excited, while other times I feel drained and useless. Usually, I feel all of these things within the scope of the same project. In this post, I would like to share some recent observations on this cycle of emotion.

Although I’ve had my iPhone for almost a year now, it was only recently that I really started to even consider the idea of subscribing to some podcasts. I’m not entirely sure why. It’s just not something that had really been on my mind. Usually, if I am going to be listening to something, it will be music. Recently, though, I stumbled across an episode of The Big Web Show, hosted by Dan Benjamin and Mr. Web himself, Jeffery Zeldman. As it happens, the particular episode I stumbled across had Jason Santa Maria as the guest. Jason, of course, is an awesome designer for whom I have a tremendous amount of respect; I just had to download and listen to it.

So, before falling asleep one evening, I put on some headphones, laid back and had myself a listen.

The conversation covered an entire range of different topics, including many of the numerous projects that Jason is involved with. For me, one of the most interesting and relevant comments came when he talked about a cycle of highs and lows that he experiences while going through the design process. To quote Jason directly:

Inspiration is a crazy roller coaster ride with me. I think I’ve said something before like my creative process is all about getting excited, then being depressed and thinking it sucks then sort of coming back up and being excited again. It’s sort of this ongoing struggle of self-doubt and feeling like what you’re doing isn’t sufficient for what you want to achieve.

I’m not sure about you, but I can definitely relate to this exact type of experience, and it’s somewhat reassuring to know that a designer of Jason’s caliber also goes through the same kind of thing. I suppose that it’s really just a part of the creative process, which is what I would like to consider in this post.

The Most Recent Cycle

I have actually gone through this kind of thing just recently, with a website that I am working on for a client. It’s not a huge project in terms of dollars, but it’s one that I have been hoping to land for several years now, and when I got the deposit, I was pretty excited and wanted to get started right away. So I took some time one evening to do some sketches and opened up Photoshop to start creating some basic comps. By the time I was finished that particular design session, I was entirely dissatisfied with what I had produced. It was dull, uninteresting and did not at all reflect the level of quality that I wanted to provide to the client.

The next day, I opened up the design again and, still feeling more than a little dissatisfied, set to work at improving it. Over the course of a few hours I found that the design started coming together much better. I wasn’t really changing the overall concept at all, but rather just tweaking a few things and working on some of the smaller details. It was these details – typography, rules and a few subtle, decorative embellishments – that really started to bring the design together, adding further evidence to my belief in the importance of the little things.

This time when I closed down for the evening, I was more than satisfied with the design. I was even excited about it.

But the emotional ride wasn’t over. Then the same cycle ultimately repeated itself when I started working on designing the footer and a contact form. As I started out, even with a solid wireframe concept in mind, the first stages of work just didn’t seem to be working. But, I just kept at it and eventually things started coming together and I sent off some very initial concepts to the client, who quickly responded, saying the design looked even better than they’d hoped for.

Talk about an up and down experience.

Considering the Cycle

After hearing Jason speak and relating it to my own experience, I started to think about this cycle of emotion that seems to go hand in hand with the very act of designing, at least for me. Maybe there are some people out there who don’t experience this kind of thing, and who approach design with a certain cold, emotionless practicality.

That’s definitely not me, though.

For me, every design that I do—no matter how big or how small—is in some way a reflection of who I am. I invest myself in achieving the best possible result, and as such I invariably develop a strong emotional connection with my work. I want every project that I work on to be my best work to date, and when a design doesn’t seem to be living up to those expectations, that’s when I start to slip into despair and self-doubt.

After examining my recent experience with the client website, however, I have started to recognize an interesting pattern in this emotional cycle. When I start into a design—at least by the time I get to the Photoshop (or other application) stages—I usually have a pretty firm concept of what I am trying to achieve in my mind. Of course, that vision tends be fairly fleshed out and reflects that I want the finished product to look like.

When I am only an hour or so into the design process, I obviously haven’t pulled everything together yet.  As such, what I am looking at is very much unfinished, and while you can see the basic form starting to shine through, it just doesn’t reflect the vision I have in my mind, which can be creatively frustrating. After a couple of hours of more work, however, I start adding more subtle details, refining the overall design and ultimately bringing it more in line with my overall vision.

As is to be expected, once I reach this point my spirits start to rise again and my confidence in the design continues to grow until I reach the point where I am actually satisfied with what I’ve put together.

The Sum of Its “Parts”

There is one obvious lesson in this. I need to learn to be more patient with myself! But I think that there is also another, more interesting truth at work here too. Part of the frustration that drives this emotional cycle stems from the difference between what I am looking at on my screen and what I am picturing in my mind. My natural tendency seems to be to interpret this difference more as deficiency than simple incompleteness (which is really what it is).

In essence, I value the design based on the sum of its parts. The fewer of the required “parts” it has, the less value I ultimately ascribe to it.

It should be noted, however, that “parts” are not synonymous with elements and that the “sum” is not necessarily a question of quantity. I am not saying that I just keep adding more and more to the design to make it look better. Instead, I’m talking more about things like alignment, typographical choices, contrast, elemental juxtaposition just as much (and probably even more) than using images, blocks of text, textures, gradients and other effects.

For example, on the site design I’ve been working on, I am using a tab-like navigational menu. As I was working through the initial stages, I just felt that something wasn’t quite right with the menu. Instead of adding gradients, texture or rounded corners, I tried adjusting spacing, position and alignment in such a way as to bring the menu into a more harmonious relationship with the design’s underlying structure. This worked quite well, and helped strengthen the design, by improving the overall “sum” of the its “parts”, without having to actually add anything.

Conclusion

All this being said, I think that (at least in my experience) there is a direct connection between the emotional cycle that is so often a part of the design process, and the perceived value of a design, based on the relation of its current state to the desired final state. Generally speaking, the wider this gap is, the less value I ultimately ascribe to my work. If, however, through a process of adjustment, tweaking and adding in those small, finishing details, I can bring the design into closer alignment with the desired final state, I tend to look upon the design with an ever-increasing sense of value.

That this up and down evaluation often seems to parallel the equally up and down sense of emotion alluded to in the Jason Santa Maria quote from the beginning of this article (and which I have experienced so often myself) seems to suggest that there is a direct connection between the two. Perhaps the value that we place on our work has a direct connection to our emotional state in relation to that work.

Really, it makes a lot of sense.

More importantly, though, if we can also learn to see past the incompleteness of a design and rest confident in the fact that it will get better, then perhaps we can also circumvent the cycle—at least partially. As an example, instead of letting myself get discouraged or frustrated by the gap between what’s on the screen and the vision in my mind, I could focus more on how the specific details are working towards bringing that vision to fruition. This would, hopefully, allow me to maintain a more positive overall outlook throughout the design process.

The benefit of this is simple but important. Negative feelings can be draining, at least for me. They drag me down, make me feel tired and ultimately hamper my productivity. Positive feelings are exactly the opposite—energizing and invigorating. When I am excited about the direction of a project, it seems like I can work for hours, and I usually have to force myself to shut it down at the end of the day.

It only stands to reason that, if I could minimize the negative feelings and maximize the positive ones simply by shifting the way I think about a design in progress, then I would ultimately experience an increase in productivity. I think it’s worth a shot anyhow!

What about you? Do you experience a similar cycle of emotion as a designer? How does it effect your work? How do you overcome the low points or capitalize on the highs?

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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

Jan 29, 2011

Jordan Burke says:

It’s good to know that all (or at least, a good many) designers go through this sine-wave of enthusiasm and dissatisfaction as well. Just knowing you’re not alone in something gives me a little bit more confidence when I need to push through to the end.

Jan 29, 2011

Keri says:

This is true for any creative endeavor, I think, not just design. There are a lot of inspiring thoughts & interesting conclusions in this article. Great writing as always =)

I like your point about bringing things into alignment with the whole of the design, and not just adding things to make it look better. I’ve recently experienced the same thing in a current project- making everything more harmonious made the design much better.

I go through this emotional cycle with everything creative I do, from performing music to knitting to design. It’s a part of the creative process I think everyone struggles with.

Thanks for writing =)

Jan 29, 2011

Colin Oakes says:

Great post Matt. I really think it helps to stay positive. You have to have faith in your self and your abilities.

I can totally relate to yourself and Jason in regards to the upward and downward cycles of emotion. As I work I just try to tell myself that it is a work in progress and to have confidence that the final outcome will be up to my standards.

Thanks for putting your self out there. You are definitely not alone.

Jan 30, 2011

Michael Østergaard says:

Hi Matt, I can relate as well.

In my opinion its all about our wish to constantly move forward – to be better a web designer.

It means we care about our work. If we don’t care, the end result will be poor.

Jan 30, 2011

Jon says:

Compelling article! I love that the quote sparked so much reflection on your part.

I tend to say “the devil is in the details” during development of a project. It’s that refinement of the design that’s critical in realizing the concept. That process can be frustrating & painful, but I believe it’s what drives a good designer to produce exceptional work.

Thanks for this provocative article. It got me thinking!

Jan 30, 2011

Sam Kitson says:

Hi Matt, great article. I completely relate to what you’re saying. The quote from Jason Santa Maria is spot on.

As web designers we need to remember to see the big picture and appreciate that it takes time to create something amazing. If it was too easy, it wouldn’t be worth doing at all!

Jan 30, 2011

Yasen Vasilev says:

Nice read! I’ve noticed for myself, that sometimes I just need to stop and think about what I’m going to design. It doesn’t work always just to rush into the work, planning is needed.
For example, I had a recent project to create some business cards for a client. First I started by making some basic designs, using textures and colors from the web site – but nothing worked well. After that I just stopped for a minute and thought what really would express properly my client’s views and aims. It was just than that my design rocked (*:

Jan 30, 2011

Tina says:

Thank you Matt for the post, it gives me a lot of new ideas and directions for my design process!!!

Jan 31, 2011

Scott says:

Matt,

Your post really hit home. We are too often put off a project in the initial hour of Photoshopping.

It’s so important to be excited about the project you’re working on, and being disappointed in the beginning stages can bring the whole project down.

“..learn to see past the incompleteness of a design and rest confident in the fact that it will get better..”

Great post.

Scott

Jan 31, 2011

Gareth says:

Hi,

Couln’t have read this at a better time. I’m right at the beginning of my Design career and am going trough everything you have detailed on my first real project.

It’s a massive relief to realise this is something experienced designers go through, thanks for sharing.

Feb 6, 2011

Dirk says:

This ebb and flow of creativity and happiness, which apparently go hand in hand, can be particularly devastating when reaching lows on several projects at once. Since most of us tend to work on more than just a single client at a time, I think we’re in a profession (maybe like all other creative professions) that can do some harm, but also allow us to soar to enormous heights when everything “flies”.

In short; it’s definitely a roller-coaster.

Feb 6, 2011

Michael says:

Hey Matt,

I can definitely relate to this. You could have not described it better.

I am actually going through a lot of these ups and downs with the projects I am working on at the moment. What you said about comparing what you have in mind and what you see on screen is very true and sometimes frustrating to the point of giving up. But that, I think, is a great quality of a good designer. Keep pushing until you are satisfied with the final result, even if the project is a small ‘insignificant’ one.

I think this attitude is what makes valuable design happen.

Keep posting, loved the article.

Michael

Feb 6, 2011

Bryan says:

I’m glad to see other designers go through this. I always seem to go through a wave of emotions whenever I’m designing something from start to finish.

Feb 8, 2011

NEIM says:

1st time reading your blog. Won’t be my last. It’s amazing that the way you felt about Jason Santa Maria is the very way I feel after reading this. I go through the same thing in the same way. Good to know I’m not insane. Many of my clients react the same way after I’ve finished their projects. Sometimes I don’t know what it looks like after and I have to ask several ppl before I send a proof. Think it means we just strive to put out the best art we know that we can. Good article.

Feb 14, 2011

Kellie says:

this is so bang on–and it’s nice to see a guy take this on.

it’s also really reassuring to hear that so many of us go through this same cycle! hopefully that will help us all to realize that we’re not alone, feel more connected, and also to be able to be more calm in the face of those design lows, realizing it is in fact part of the process.

Aug 19, 2011

Rae says:

Hi thanks for sharing your experiences, I do get a taste of what you encountered. I am a practitioner based in 3d jewellery and object design. There’re many points that you mentioned in the cycle which I totally agree with, because I often face the same problem. Sometimes it make me wonder whether I am even good enough to be in this field, or should I just leave and do something else that is not related to design. Often realised that, what I achieve is not enough and at certain point of time I do feel that people are judging my works and I think my design is ugly. Perhaps, for me it’s always the competitive mindset that cause the issue. But again, it is a fact that the design field is always competitive.

Sep 20, 2011

Michael Kjeldsen says:

Very cool post, Matt – it definitely have made me think about MY rhythm in design.

I’m not much of a graphic designer but I recon the same line of thoughts are present in my area of competence (which is UX/IA).

I’ll be monitoring my cycle of design from now on :-)

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