By Todd Scheuring
When young designers first enter the design field, they quickly discover they’re going to need thick skin to stay sane in this business. Unlike a developer’s work, where the quality of code goes mostly unseen, a designer’s work is on full display where everyone and their mothers can have opinions.
The design process is no different — designers come up with creative ideas, present them to various team members, and need to take constructive feedback for what it’s worth.
It’s really a counter-intuitive cycle. On one hand, designers need the passion and creativity to design something they can be proud of, while on the other hand, the ability to easily throw out all of their work and start over is an essential reality of the creative process. No wonder we wear our designs like badges when they finally come to fruition. And although designers do get a lot of the glory when it comes to the final product, designers also fight the battle along the way.
But we enjoy the challenge and know that the heartache of the process is worth the end result. And it’s the result which bears so much weight for a designer. As creators, we want to validate our creative ideas. We crave the reaction of others to make sure our hard work has merit.
This is why designers gravitate towards isolation in their workflows. We have an innate need to hide our designs in a dark corner until they’re finalized and ready for a “big reveal.” There’s a worry that others won’t be able to see our vision until it’s been polished with all of its drop-shadow and letter-pressed glory. Or that others will judge our skills based on an unfinished product (which is why we stress the point that something is unfinished if we show it early.) We know there’s going to be feedback and criticism of our work when we eventually present it, so we focus on technique, thinking that if we can just make it look pretty enough, the design will eventually work.
At least that’s what I used to think.
Since I started at CX, I’ve learned a ton of new things. But none probably so profound as watching how the development team works together. The CX development team follows an agile process, where developing ideas and iterating quickly is a key ingredient for success. One of the components of agile development is the ability to “fail faster,” whereby the faster you discover faults in the system, the faster you can resolve them, and you’ll be less likely to continue down a flawed process.
It took a while to sink in, but I realized that a lot of the ideas for agile development made sense for the design process as well — and not just software-related design, all types of design. I soon started to see all the flaws in the “big reveal” process I was used to. And although it’s nice to receive a “wow” moment when you show your design to others for the first time, spending a lot of time polishing a design during the creative process is just not worth it in the long run.
First of all, spending a lot of time during the initial design stages means that you’re much more invested in the design and less open to constructive feedback. If you’ve spent some time going down a certain creative direction, it’s also a much bigger step back to throw everything away and change directions. Repeat this process over and over again over multiple projects, and it will start taking a toll on your creative energy and self-esteem (I’ve seen this happen before — it’s like a designer’s disease).
“Failing faster” means that designers should start with the basics and see if their ideas work before moving on, so they don’t end up going down a “flawed process.” Agile also dictates designers should initially focus on ideas, not technique, meaning we can focus our energy on one task at a time. Instead of design details right away, we should look at the overall requirements of a project and develop overarching ideas that will eventually drive the creative direction. For example, when tasked to come up with a series of landing pages, begin to think of the potential stories you can tell in the design, what sort of emotional response you expect, and thoughts for communicating benefits. Don’t be afraid to start simple. It might be tempting to jump right into Photoshop, but start by sketching your ideas on paper. Sketches are much more concise and force you to hold back a tendency to start fleshing out the details right away. Then, once you get others on board with a direction, it’s much easier to stay aligned with the rest of the team going forward.
This process will eventually make us better designers because we’re training our brains to come up with ideas more quickly and more effectively. And since we’re only starting with a collection of thoughts, they’re much more disposable, and we can make room for other potential ideas to spawn.
So, what does all of this actually mean for designers? It means sacrificing “the big reveal.” Don’t wait until your ideas are full-fledged designs to show them to your constituents. And although it might seem uncomfortable at first to show your work in progress, the earlier you can “fail faster,” the better your end result and less heartaches along the way.
As Tara Roskell says on graphicdesignblog.co.uk, “By spending a short time sketching you can save yourself hours on the computer. Not only will you save yourself hours, you may even afford yourself some peace of mind. Whenever that evil monster of ‘designer’s block’ creeps in, it inevitably leaves a path of destructive self doubt in its wake. I challenge you to start employing sketching as a part of your process and you will see a dramatic decrease in the amount of times you hit that virtual wall of nothingness.”