Friday, October 19, 2007

Design Guy, Episode 10, Getting Creative

Download Episode 10

Design Guy, here. Welcome to the show.

This is the program where we set aside the technical manuals and focus on the timeless aspects of design. Software versions come and go, and new forms of media emerge, but the principles behind our work stay pretty much the same. So, it's my hope that these brief discussions will be worth the time investment, since we can commit these principles to long term memory. Better yet, we can put them into practice, knowing they'll serve us throughout our careers. Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, "If you learn only methods, you'll be tied to your methods. But if you learn principles, you can devise your own methods."

So, prior to the detour that we just concluded concerning the attributes of the designer, we were discussing the earliest stages of the design process. And we said this process of design begins with the work of data gathering. This is the first step in the sequence of practical things that we do as designers. By amassing a bunch of information, we basically prepare ourselves for all the creative work to come. In so doing, we're stocking our mental shelves, we're fueling the creative tank, fertilizing the ground - whatever anology you want to use. The key thing - is that we do it.

If you're kind of an impatient designer who wants to jump right into your favorite authoring environment and get going, you really need to resist that impulse early on. Newer designers may wonder if it's necessary to gather as much information as I was suggesting, but I'd say that, as a rule, it really is. Sometimes we can pull off good results with some pretty scant data, but, on the whole, and especially if the project is at all extensive, the more we know about the things that are important to our client, the better off we'll be. And while, we tend to gather more data than we'll eventually use, it's recommended that you capture a super abundance of stuff. When you have more than you need, you can make better decisions - you can have choices. And, trust me, it's a nice thing to have choices. When you have more than you need, you can cull the best and leave the rest. We can liken this to the way that writers discard pages they've written or the way filmmakers leave scenes on the cutting room floor. But, again, at this early stage, when you're just embarking on the creative journey of your project, you really don't know for sure what you'll keep or what you'll toss, so you want to hang on to all of it.

So we're sitting on this pile of information, and we're feeling pretty knowledgeable and all, we're feeling pretty good about ourselves, until we realize with a growing disquiet within us that we're facing this blank page. And it's not magically filling itself, either. For creatives, this can be the most intimidating sight in the world. It can actually be terrifying. And we realize at this point that it's one thing to have all this information, now what do we do with it? As Marty Neumeier said, "Design is easy. All you do is stare at the screen until drops of blood form on your forehead." He was kidding, of course. Or, at least, he was exaggerating.

Sometimes it seem effortless - ideas come to us fully formed, like bulldogs barking at the garden gate. Other times, we can't come up with a thing, we can't produce one good idea, at least we can't think of any good ones. And, if we're not careful, we can psyche ourselves out. We get performance anxiety. We worry that we'll be exposed for the frauds that we are, that we've just been playing at all this design stuff and now everyone's going to know. In a word, we can panic. And if we panic, we can get into all sorts of trouble. So don't panic. If you're in this position today, even as we speak, don't worry. Help is on its way.

What I'd like for us to do for a few episodes is talk about the creative process. I want to talk about where the ideas come from. About mythical creatures called muses. The unconcious mind, and other things. This is territory that often seems shrouded in mystery, and in a certain sense it is. It's often hard to account for why and when a lightbulb suddenly decides to appear above our head. Why the solution to a puzzle dawns on us at the most unlikely time. So it's a curious thing, this creative process. But, on the other hand, there are things we can know about it that will reassure us. There are certain principles we can get a handle on, so that we don't have to panic when good solutions don't appear to be forthcoming. To a great extent, we can actively manage our creativity rather than feeling totally passive about it.

But I'll conclude today's discussion by offering the first rule of creativity, which is to relax. Don't panic. Relax. When we tense up and then try to produce in that state, it's really counterproductive. To strain and force matters just doesn't work very well. It reminds me of those chinese finger-cuff toys. You may have had them as a kid. They're these little doodads made of woven straw that you slip your friend's index fingers into. When they struggle to pull their fingers apart, they wind up pulling the weave tighter and their fingers get really stuck. It's only when they relax, and stop forcing matters, that the cuff loosens up and they can remove their fingers. And that's what the creative mind is like. We can gently coax ideas, but we can't really force them.

But that's it for today. As always, s how notes are available at my web page, which is Music is by Thanks again for listening, I hope you'll join us next time.

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