August 30, 2012

An Unlikely Byproduct

By Andrew Maier

As any designer working in an agile environment can tell you, a lot of time and energy goes into ideation. Many ideas are simply sketched, prototyped, and then logged away as potential recruits for the next phase. This might sound depressing, but it really just depends on how you look at it. The secret is knowing what to keep.

Every time we work with clients to decide what’s valuable, we make a choice; we exercise shared judgement. This leads to a more cogent creative process in the long run.

A creative space

Projects begin in a vacuum. Ideas are fragile and we, as creators, only want what’s best for them.

Prudently, we scrutinize each and every one. Designers fill their brains with the sights, sounds, words, symbols, and patterns of thought in which their target audience is immersed. We do this in order to think like them, to judge the merits of our ideas as our audience might. As Charlie Kaufman so eloquently puts it in his lecture on screenwriting:

The challenge of multiple points of view forces us to come up with new solutions, to throw away conventional approaches.

—Charlie Kaufman

Perspective inspires creativity. Rather than precluding ideas, opening our eyes to our audience’s (not to mention our colleagues’) cognitive boundaries inspires the question “What if … ?”

Frank Chimero lends words to this notion at the end of chapter 4 in his book The Shape of Design:

Often, what we perceive to be possible dims in comparison to what we can actually do. This gap creates the opportunity for people like Henry Ford, Walt Disney, and all the other magicians who have expanded what we think of the world. The rest of us believe the line that defines what is possible is much closer to our feet than it actually may be. The creative misfits ask their questions to realize the line’s true location, and conclude that there is enough room for a great leap forward. Our questioning, and the imagination it inspires, allows us to perform the most important magic: to make the world grow by revealing what was right before our eyes.

—Frank Chimero

Good teams spend a lot of time considering the impact that their ideas – their content and features – have on their audience. This results in both creativity and pragmatism.

The faultline

There’s a hitch, though: People don’t complain in the form of solutions (as opposed to the form of a question). This means that designers can’t simply listen to their audience in order to find the best answer. Henry Ford is often misquoted as having said “If I’d have asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

Real design problems are non-trivial which means that, when a potential solution does manifest itself, team members can (and often do) spend a great deal of energy fighting for it. We must learn to say no. One of the commenters on Whitney Hess’s A List Apart article on this subject explains how his own resistance to an idea actually ended up benefitting his project:

Over the early weeks in helping with/investing in a movie project, I spotted some serious flaws. In talking yesterday with the filmmakers and citing my concerns, inching toward my intention of removing myself from the film going forward, we had almost a group epiphany as I leveled with them. … then we came up with the glue that holds the film’s narrative arc together and gives it its marketing appeal. It was a use of the Creative ‘No.’

Ideas can derail an otherwise successful project. Ultimately, it’s our ability to exercise judgement – to say no – in a consistent, pragmatic way that separates the wheat from the chaff. It helps us to co-create something better than we could on our own.

Judge and jury

Judgement isn’t something gleaned from a design textbook. It takes practice and persistence.

A good example of this comes from professional photographers. These people can easily take hundreds of photos in order to produce just one or two superb shots. Each photo, or batch of photos, seems like a good idea – the photographer has the forethought to ‘see’ the photo in his head – but that doesn’t mean the photo will turn out the way he planned.

Designers must do the same. This is actually something we look for during our nGen Discovery process: If we can sit down with a client, sketch ideas, and discuss the merits of those ideas, we’re actually building something greater: a shared understanding. It’s an unlikely byproduct, but it’s far and away the most productive way to work.

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