Monday, December 17, 2007

Design Guy, Episode 16, The Eleventh Draft

Download Episode 16

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."

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