Friday, December 28, 2007

Design Guy, Episode 17, Embracing Constraints

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Design Guy here, welcome to the show. This is the program that explores timeless principles of design and explains them simply.

Now, we've spent some time trekking through that terrain known as the creative process, and on our way we've looked at a few ideas that will help us to gear up for the challenges we can expect to face as we traverse our projects. Today, we'll bring this series to an end today with some parting thoughts. But since this little excursion has been by no means exhaustive, you can expect that we'll dip into the general subject matter of creativity from time to time.

And I encourage you to continue doing your own study in this area. At my webpage, which you can find at, I've posted shownotes, which include a bibliography of all the books I've referenced during these programs. And at the end of today's talk, I'll recommend a few of the programs that I enjoy and highly recommend for real world insight into creativity.

If you've been with us from the start of the show, you'll remember that before we launched into this series, we discussed how design begins. Along those lines, we explored requirements gathering, and the discovery process that we undertake with out clients. And in those programs, I recommended that you keep your horizons broad as you prepare for the creative phase of your projects. And this provided a natural segue into the series we're wrapping up now, because the big idea is that we want to approach creative without a heightened sense of constraints pressing down on us. The early part of our project should be characterized by an open-minded brainstorming sensibility, where no idea is a bad idea. And this meanas that, at least for a little while, we can indulge ourselves in a bit of fantasy. To use a filmmaker's analogy, we can allow ourselves to think like Steven Spielberg for a while, even if we've only got a Kevin Smith budget. And this exercise in thinking big safeguards us from aiming too low on our projects, or assuming that we can't pull off great results with very little resources. And if you remember the design adage, Less is More, this makes even more sense, and should encourage us to make the most of our little projects by always thinking big.

Now, as we get deeper into the design phase, we necessarily have to allow reality to inform our open-ended brainstorming. The facts of life being what they are, we're going to have to design in a way that jibes with the resources we've got to work with. Which brings up the subject of constraints.

And what are constraints? Constraints, simply put, are limitations. Like the picket fences in our yards, constraints are the boundaries we've got to live within. The good news, though is that we navigate constraints, we adapt to constraints all the time, with minimum thought or energy expended. This holiday season, I doubt many of us will buy a 13 foot Christmas tree if we've only got an 8 foot ceiling in your living room. On New Year's Eve, we can hope that our celebration will be constrained by a personal drinking limit, so we can all drive home safely after the party.

In our projects, there are all kinds of limitations that we need to factor in. Some limitations are intuitive, and don't require much thought. Others, require detailed attention and planning. Of course, the one constraint we all face is time. There's a limit to how long we can work on our project if there's a paying customer waiting.And so, we'll likely draw up some kind of schedule to measure and mete out the time that we do have. And if we're to be profitable, we've got to stay withing a budget, so clearly there's a money limit, too.

The other broad area of constraint we must be cognizant of is that of our media. If we're print designers, there's only so many colors we can reproduce with CMYK process inks. And there's only so much quality we can expect out of uncoated papers, so maybe we should use our one-color logo for that newspaper ad.

If we're new media designers, we have to content ourselves with limited typographic control. At least for this present age of limited screen resolution, inconsistent browser support, and other limitations, we have to content ourselves with macro-typography, instead of the micro-typographic control we've enjoyed in the realm of print. Or we're going to have to compress our media assets more than we like to in order to fit them within bandwidth limits.

So, constraints are limits. Constraints confine us. Constraints are the ceilings we bump our heads on. At least, this is one way to think about constraints.

On the other hand, we can make our peace with constraints. We can look for opportunities within our limitations. In one of Hillman Curtis'(1) books on Flash design, written at the dawn of the Flash Web Design era, he speaks to the transcendant principle of embracing constraints. Rather than bemoaning the fact that you can't fit 100 lbs of design into a 10 lb. design bag, you can change your perspective. You can embrace your constraints.(2) You can look at the possibilities of your chosen format and medium and plan accordingly. And when you do this, a wonderful thing happens. You stop making the mistakes that all the hacks make. You stop trying to make your format do things it was never intended to do. You stop trying to push your medium so far that all the user sees are its weaknesses.

A timely example of this principle are the movies that attempt to recreate authentic looking human beings using CGI. The more they push for this goal, the more they risk falling into what some have coined the "uncanny valley"(3) - which is that point where 3D models look pretty human, but creepily unreal at the same time. This is an example of pushing a medium too far. Of not living withing your means, so to speak.

So, go for economy. Remember that Less is More. That you can have more impact with fewer things. Oftentimes, the more you add to your work in the way of design elements, the more you begin to dilute the piece. The more you introduce what designers refer to as "extraneous elements." But if you embrace constraints by putting 8 lbs. of design in your 10 lb. design bag, you'll have room left over. You'll have breathing room for your work so that it can live and be vital and effective. So, make friends with those limits, scale your design accordingly, and you won't have a sense of confiment anymore. You'll just have good design.

Well, as I mentioned before, we'll move on from this creativity series. But that doesn't mean our study has to end. Here are three programs that I highly recommend you subscribe and listen to, because they explore creativity in the real world, where the best and brightest tell the tale of their own journeys into creativity.

The first is KCRW's The Treatment with Elvis Mitchell (4), which focuses mainly on filmmakers and writers, and the design and thematic drivers of their projects. The second is PRI's Studio 360. (5) The third is The Accidental Creative. (6) Like this program, these shows avoid focusing exclusively on any one design discipline, but, rather, they speak to design in general, as they explore the universal and timeless aspects of design that every creative encounters.

Well, that's it for today. I want to thank you again for listening and look forward to having you back again. But before I go, I'd like to plug my new voice mail number once more, which you can use in order to add your voice to the discussion. I'd love to hear from you, and to add your recorded remarks to a future show. But you've got to make that call, at 206-350-6748. Until next time, this is Design Guy. Be well.


1. - Curtis' books are always embued with timeless principles of design. I recommend you get your hands on MTIV: Making the Invisible Invisible: Principles, Practice and Inspiration for the New Media Designer.

2. More on the philosophy and principle of embracing constraints from the folks at 37signals, one of the most innovative web application developers today.





Monday, December 17, 2007

Design Guy, Episode 16, The Eleventh Draft

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Design Guy here, welcome to the show. This is the program that explores timeless principles of design, and explains them simply.

We've talking about creativity in recent episodes. And, continuing this line of thought, I'd like to start today's episode with a quotation.

It's by Saul Bass, who remarked in an interview about a problem encountered by young designers and students: "They are not privy to process," he noted. "They have the illusion that these things really spring full-blown out of the head of some designer. This is a very unsettling perception for young people, because they struggle with their work. They have a go at it... They redo.... It gets better... It slips... It gets worse... it comes back ... It comes together. And maybe it's something that's pretty good, even excellent. But they say to themselves, "Gee, it comes hard and it's so difficult. Am I really suited for this?" (1) (end of quotation)

Bass is speaking to the subject we've been exploring - the ofttimes arduous journey of the creative process - and how we've got to correct our misconception that great design comes forth in a fully realized state. Let's face it, we're conditioned by an instant gratification world. So, it's understandable if we expect remarkable things to be handed to us by our minds, fully formed, as effortlessly as a Mocha Frappuccino from across the counter at Starbucks. If the creative process teaches us anything, it's that anything worthwhile takes effort. Sometimes we've got to pursue what eludes us for a while, like one chasing a dropped dollar on a windy day. We need to experience the discomfort of something being just out of reach. We need to endure setbacks before we truly advance. One step forward, two steps back.

Picasso did many versions of a painting, and destroyed many a canvas until he realized the ideal he was pursuing. Even prolific authors like Stephen King need at least a few drafts to get their work into final shape(2). Hemingway declared that the first draft of anything is garbage(3). Actually, he used a stronger word, but this is a family show, folks. Likewise, as designers we have to condition ourselves to a "draft mentality". Paul Rand produced a piece that featured an abucus(4), which he meant as a metaphor for the design process, especially the late stage, in which we go through a period of arrangement and rearrangement, shifting the beads of our design elements around continuously, doing and undoing and redoing, until things finally "settle out."

We need to train our expectations differently. We're not going to have instant gratification all the time when it comes to creativity. We'll have lots of little rewards along our path, to be sure. This is the joy of creativity. But it's rare indeed that we get the whole thing in its entirety the first time. That we bag the elephant. And for the thoughtful among us, neither will we be satisfied with our merely competent first efforts. So, just as Paul Masson would sell no wine before its time, we need to afford ourselves time, and we need to permit ourselves space in order for our project to come together. And I'm not talking about perfectionism - a syndrome that has us working far passed the point of diminishing returns. That's one extreme. I'm talking about giving yourself a break, giving yourself permission to lay down a crummy, ugly, smelly, malformed version of whatever it is you're working on. And then patiently sticking with it through the stages til it's done. This normally happens over a succession of drafts.

Now, if you'll recall our definition from an earlier episode, design is a progression from chaos to order. Of combining a number of disparate elements into an ordered unit. Puzzles like this don't get solved at a glance, unless you're some kind of savant, a Rain Man. As a rule, we need to take our work through a succession of versions or iterations until we get it right. And this teaches us that great design only looks easy. And this is what Saul Bass was getting at in that quotation. Anything great is usually a don't-try-this-at-home affair. Because you've got to be willing to fail and fail again before you succeed. When working on-screen, the undo command is your friend. Better yet, you can think of it as failing forward. You've learned what doesn't work. Edison didn't think of all those exploded light bulbs around his feet as failures, he viewed them as discoveries of the myriad ways in which a lightbulb won't work.(5)

So, excellence in any endeavor is often hard-won. But you'll also recall from an earlier episode, this doesn't have to translate into agony. We want to have fun. We need to be patient and train our expectations that we'll be traversing a number of drafts, but we should be enjoying ourselves, because creativity is the natural state for creatives. So, please discard the image of the tortured artist, and forget the furrowed brow. You'll only look constipated to your friends. And if you're really, truly creatively constipated, maybe you should leave that project alone for a while. Why work on it if you can't do it in your natural state? Or maybe you need to feed that unconscious mind a bit more before commencing again.

Adopting a draft mentality is really quite liberating because it means that, in the world of our project, every draft is a second chance to fix mistakes and get things right. We don't always get second chances in life, out there in the real world. So, we can stop beating ourselves up for being so talentless and stupid, because we're not the only ones that can't get it right the first time. If Hemingway wrote bad first drafts, and if Saul Bass complained that design is hard and difficult, then we've got every reason to cut ourselves some slack, don't you agree?

Well that'll do for today. As is my custom, I'll make shownotes available at my webpage, which is

I also want to make you aware of my new voicemail number, where you can call and leave a message, and add your thoughts to the discussion. I'll even add your recorded message to future episodes. But you've got to give me a call at 206-350-6748.

Well, I thank you again for listening, and I hope to have you back next time.


Note: The title of this episode, The Eleventh Draft, comes from a wonderful book of the same title. An Amazon customer-reviewer says of this book, "The title, The Eleventh Draft, is a gentle nudge to the rest of us that God is in the revisions; that no one--not even the best (and these writers are good)--writes easily or quickly, and that the process of writing is just as meaningful as the result (even if nobody ever sees your 11th draft but you)." Get The Eleventh Draft here.

1. Robyn Marsack, Essays On Design 1: AGI's Designers of Influence, London, Booth-Clibborn Eidtions, 1997 (as referenced by Adrian Shaugnessy in How To Be A Graphic Designer Without Losing Your Soul, Princeton Architectural Press, 2005)

2. To be precise, it's "two drafts and a polish." Read more in his excellent, On Writing, Pocket Books, 2002, available at Amazon.



5. "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work."

Monday, December 10, 2007

Design Guy, Episode 15, Flow vs. Edit

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Flow vs. Edit

Design guy here, welcome to the show. This is the program that explores timeless principles of design and explains them simply. If you're just joining us, our motto here is "Principles First." Or to quote Ralph Waldo Emerson, "If you learn only methods, you'll be tied to your methods. But if you learn principles, you can devise your own methods." Which is why we don't spend time on specific software tips or methods. Now, there are excellent shows that cover those things, and, of course, we all need to keep up our technical knowledge up to date, but it's out of scope for this program, where are goal is to offer information that doesn't change. And that's why we emphasize the timeless principles - because can safely commit them to long term memory.

Now, we're in the midst of a series on creativity, with the most recent shows focusing on the creative mind. In the last show, we introduced the subject of left brain / right brain theory. And while scientists today have a more nuanced understanding of all of this than was popularly presented in the past, the model still stands as a good metaphor for the mental dynamics we experience in our creativity. We also pointed out some similarities to Freud's teaching about the id, ego, and superego.(1) And we melded it all together to say that there's a side of us that acts like an inner critic or adult. We can liken this to Freud's ego and superego, and we can also liken it to the logical left hemishphere. This is the analytical part of us that complements and sometimes conflicts with the creative side of us, or the inner child, as represented by the right side of the brain, or the unconscious id. I'm mixing up these overlapping theories a bit to reinforce the point that these dynamics really exist. Which is that we need to recognize that there's a left and right brain dynamic, a rational and emotional side, logic and feelings, intellect and intuition. And in the case of creativity, they've go to be coordinated rather than conflicted.

So, we said that we've got a part of us that want to run with reckless abandon and create - that inner wild child or right side of the brain. The part of us that can be very productive. And we said that we ought to just allow it to do so, as much as we can. We may generate a lot of crazy stuff that we'll need to rein in later, but at least we're laying down a lot of raw material. We're starting to manifest the raw material that our unconsious mind has been working on. And by laying it down in a frenzied rush, we're quickly giving ourselves physical material to play with and shape and structure.

Writers tend to think of this process as two modes of production. The first mode, which we've just described is called "Flow." And, like the word suggests, we allow our ideas to spill out of us for a while, so that we can get a complete, if imperfect, set of thoughts down. If we're designers, we'll be playing with type and color or other elements, until things start to take shape. If we're writers, we making a mad dash to the end of our first version of a manuscript. And since, we're unleashing that inner, crazy child, we know up front that we're going to throw down a lot of material, only to throw it out later. But, as I mentioned a couple of episodes ago in a somewhat different context, this is when we should be thinking quantity first, not quality. We've got to fill the bucket before we can skim off the cream. There will be time later to subject this material to critical thought and fix it, but for now, we can allow ourselves to let it flow, without any concern to who is going to see this hodge podge we're creating.

And this bring us to our second mode, which is "Edit". The part of us that wants to nitpick and criticize, and immediately set to fixing things is that logical, rational, analytical part of us, which we associate with the left brain. This is that super-ego, or finger wagging inner adult. This is what writers tend to think of as the inner critic or Editor. The key to productivity is knowing when to gag this inner critic. When to tell him to shut up. When to ignore him or put duct tape on his mouth or lock him up in the closet. If we can allow ourselves to be in "Flow" mode until we get a version of whatever we're working on down, then we'll supply ourselves with plenty of fodder for that inner critic to work with later. And we need this inner critic. We want to have polished work. We want to subject our early drafts to scrutiny. We want to revise our work in light of all of the design principles that we've taken the trouble to learnn about. But we need to suspend that "Edit" mode in order to get something down on the page first. Otherwise, we'll be afraid to make a move, we'll be paralyzed by the voice of that inner critic.

Now, the separation between these modes will tend to characterize your personal work habits or style of production. If you can discipline yourself to tear off a crazy first version before going in to edit mode, you may tend to finish faster. If you revert between flow and edit very rapidly, you'll tend to go slower. The writer, Dean Koontz,(2) admits to being one of those writers who has to perfect one sentence, one paragraph, one page at a time, before moving on to the next. He doesn't revisit those pages much, because he's done. He's flowed and edited almost simultaneously. They're not really distinct and separate modes to someone like this. Other writers and creatives tend to be able to get that wild, unruly draft down without a lot of interruption from the inner critic, and then fix it in later passes. In my own experience, I find that my habits change depending on the nature of the project and mood. But I do find it helpful to be aware of this left brain / right brain model, this flow and edit model, because I can remind myself to work a little less inhibited for a while, knowing I can fix it later. And with this awareness of flow versus edit in mind, I hope you'll be helped also, as you strategically muzzle your inner critic and let the ideas flow.

Well that'll do for today. As usual, I'll have show notes at my webpage, which is located at Music is by I thank you again for tuning in, and hope to have back next time.