When do you stop creating and send your work out to face the public? Deadlines can be a motivating factor most of the time, but you can’t perpetuate the design process forever — sometimes you just have to trust that its wings are strong enough to fly. When working on a project like a new tool, a program, design, etc, you have to have a finish date or you’ll just keep tweaking and reshaping and second-guessing until infinity because there will always be new technologies, conventions or new opinions that shake the ground you built on.
I was reminded of this after reading an article on Wired called Learn to Let Go: How Success Killed Duke Nukem. The creator spent 12 years reshaping this video game sequel until finally his company couldn’t keep pace with the speed of technology and had to shut down. “The story was like many suits-versus-creatives relationships: Developers want to make their product superb, and the publishers just want it on the shelves as soon as possible. If the game starts getting delayed, it’s the publisher that cracks the whip.”
The creative process may seem like a lot of smoke and mirrors, but it is a process. Each designer develops a method for solving basic problems, then evolves that method over time. I have a process, which evolves, that works for me. Sometimes the process is specific to the design problem or general in nature.
The Concept, Research and Discovery
The concept is the starting point of all design; it is the prime mover. Research and discovery play an important role in figuring out what defines the concept as well as what can be added to or removed from this idea. For a website design I will initially look through all the content (text, imagery, logo, etc.) and create a hierarchy based on the purpose of the site. What are all the details of the problem and what is the client’s main goal?
What is already out there that is similar? Researching pre-existing work in the same field by mentors, friends, competitors or legends is helpful to me by competitively analyzing the good and the bad of other work. Plain and simple, learn from others’ works. For some projects I even put together a look book of ideas and images that relate directly to the concept or more indirectly to feelings about certain elements I may want to use in the design.
Form, Pencil Meets Paper
When an idea hits, I find that sketching it out on paper in thumbnails or words is still the most effective way to get a good creative flow going, before I even set up a document on the computer. These thumbnail drawings or word mappings (sketching with keywords) are used to gather the basic idea or composition. This is where form is given to the concept.
Content and Digital Implementation
After seeing a fleshed out polished version of the thumbnails, I get into the pixel pushing. I flesh out the composition and work to create contrast, tension, balance and areas for the eye to rest with all of the design elements. Here is also where I can be inspired to go another direction. This is where the design can evolve or get stuck on the designer’s treadmill. Sometimes the concept is so specific that it cannot be changed. Other times a better idea is found along the way, and the concept is changed to take advantage of the new discovery.
Feedback, Rinse, Lather and Repeat
Client, friends, mentors or coworkers can provide valuable feedback that can improve the design. This in and of itself can become a cycle of review and approval if not checked and limited. You may not be working on the next Duke Nukem video game, but setting up a design process is helpful and necessary to tracking and monitoring a project’s flow and progression.
Some ideas may come out of thin air, but I assure you that there are no smoke and mirrors behind most design work. Setting goals and milestones for projects can be the motivating factors for completion. However, sometimes you just have to throw in the towel and learn from your success or failure… and step off the treadmill.