When we imagine a creative act, we picture a prologue of frustrated brainstorming followed by a sudden spark of unrestrained brilliance. Such a story fails to celebrate the vital evolution of ideas from continued effort over time.
The artist is hunched over a table top of sketches stained with coffee rings, deadline looming, until an “A-ha” moment—where the dark clouds part and a solitary ray of inspiration shines through—and everything falls into place. It’s great drama, just like the witness breaking down on the stand and tearfully crying, “Yes! I did it!” or the bottom-of-the-ninth grand slam to win the big game. All of these things actually happen from time to time, but seldom mark the end of the journey. Tomorrow, the lawyer will file paperwork, the baseball team will practice for the next big game, and the artist will endeavor to turn that perfect sketch into valid XHTML.
It’s one thing to remind ourselves that great works take great work. After all, Thomas Edison was famously quoted, “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” almost 100 years ago. Or you could look to Morihei Ueshiba, founder of Aikido, and passage 94 from Art of Peace.
To those who
Train and train;
Reliance on secret techniques
Will get you nowhere.
These are lessons that, despite those among us always looking for a short-cut, reside deep in our hearts.
It’s another thing to fully embrace what many creative professionals consider the ultimate enemy: the revision. Yes, the dilution of pristine output into stuff barely recognizable as art, fit only for lowest common denominator mass consumption. That’s certainly one way to look at it, but if that’s what is happening to your work, I have to say “Ur doin it wrong“.
The guys behind LOLcats inspired a lot of these concepts, actually.
For the last four years, I’ve served as a webmaster for a non-profit organization. A good definition of webmaster is a web designer that has to live with the consequences. My organization had big intentions online and my first few years were spent sewing a patchwork of beautiful but disparate designs we’d commissioned from multiple agencies into a quilt that provided some sort of comfort to the people actually visiting our site. Before long, I took the reigns myself, started saying “no” to a lot of otherwise enticing ideas, and focused on traffic stats and user behavior while re-crafting our online presence. In a year, the Web Team had decreased our bounce rate by almost 20% and dramatically increased conversion to both our email list and online donations.
I don’t fault the agencies. They each danced the dance that all designers do, partnering stated client needs with personal choices both informed and intuitive. That is the ultimate role of an expert, listening carefully and then leaping forward with confidence and experience.
But they only did it once.
Briefing, brainstorming, delivery, invoice, goodbye. What made the in-house designs more successful (if the goals were objective visitor conversion and not subjective aesthetics) was each day’s attention to the previous day’s decisions. “Living with the consequences” was ultimately the fast path to good design.
Creative work is at a crossroads, struggling with what it means to be an expert in the face of the wisdom of crowds. I believe a path has presented itself and, by not taking it, we are missing a chance to fully engage the interactive nature of today’s culture.
The first books were oral traditions written down; it would be centuries before the chapter was invented. The first films were plays with a camera aimed in their direction; the innovation of the close-up caused hysteria. The web, even as it manages to wriggle out from under the book’s metaphors of pages and authors to achieve its destiny as a mode of communication, still labors under an obsolete model for its design process.
Am I just talking about Agile web design? Yes, but also how it must effect our relationships.
What would a better model look like? Consider regular check-ups with your doctor, “Looks like we’ve made some progress on your cholesterol, let’s keep working on that. How’s your back feeling, any better?” Good designers do this already. They form plans with their patients, earnestly listening to their ailments before writing any prescriptions, and providing supplemental education when important… but why stop there? Why not have the same conversation with the data?
I love the duck-billed platypus. Besides being a web-footed, duck-billed, egg-laying mammal, they also have poisonous claws and can sense electromagnetic fields. No designer, no matter how inspired, would have presented the duck-billed platypus and no client, however savvy, would have approved it. Yet, after generations upon generations of adapting to fit its environment, here it is.
It’s not hard to imagine a design process that places evolution at its center. Instead of projects guided by hunches and filled with pre-determined deliverables, we would have extended engagements guided by research with more milestones after a launch than before it. Client and designer both would sit down with statistics and decide which numbers should go up and which down, leading to either subtle or radical redesigns on a weekly basis. All of this would result in a final product quite different than anyone had expected at the onset, but evolved to fit its environment.
True not only for visual & interaction design but copy-writing, viral videos, or anything else you could measure the success of.
This kind of process requires a certain kind of designer and a certain kind of client. Both have to be willing to try new things but temper their own enthusiasm with the cold hard facts. It would require a creativity that can maintain its vitality when mixed with reality, a confidence that expertise still has a place in a world filled with data. It would require a faith that putting process over product ultimately yields a better product.
And it would require diligence.
For what better a word than diligence to describe the act of enthusiastically doing your best each day and soberly evaluating the fruits of that effort the next day, knowing that this behavior—and not any “secret technique”—is the character of great work?
It is my experience that designers and clients such as these are bountiful. My last five years in the non-profit and responsible business communities have introduced me to a great number of people and organizations that pick big fights, take on insurmountable odds, and somehow get up each morning with the same devotion. They are guided by a trust that victory, while in some circumstances a long way off, is inevitable in the face of diligence.
Maybe you are one of these people. To work with me, please visit DiligentCreative.com.