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.
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?Post A Comment
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