By: Brandon McNeely
The creative process in the digital world stales fast — turning impersonal, routine and robotic — if and when you're planted in front of a screen all day. As health studies report , and as a revelation to no one, soaking your brain in information all day, sitting in front of a screen isn't the healthiest of activities — if not significantly shortening your life span. When there's so many ways avoid slipping into such a gelatinous cycle that act to improve the quality of your work and life, there's no reason not to act on them. So clear that stale cubicle air out of your lungs, get your blood pumping and humanize your day, all ye chained to your desk types.
As a graphic designer, stepping away from your panoramic screens is downright necessary to create something of value. In our constant pursuit of hyper-efficiencies, and at the sacrifice of quite a lot, it's all too easy to recycle from the same inspiration points, further diluting ideas that at one point were well thought out. And keep in mind you don't want you end user to be staring at said screen all day either (keep your empathy by your side). Life and inspiration need not be restricted to outside the workday, as there's plenty that can be done within the working walls.
Rehumanizing the design process can start with defining the problem itself, the 'why.' Hit the brakes until there's a 'why' to build off of — it gives the project and your days meaning and acts as a human-centered springboard. How are you going to add value and meaning to someone's day or even everyday life? Hopefully you're taking on projects that give you just such an opportunity. It's your first chance and challenge to employ empathy, putting yourself in hypothetical situations of real people; included in that group are the client and those who will be putting your creation to use. Once this wide angle is set, everything else including narrative and strategy can fall into place alongside visual design.
The research phase is the easiest to shortcut, from looking up competitor's sites to noting their aesthetics and functionality, often borrowing elements or trying to steer in opposite directions. Of course when designing a website, you'll want to look at competitors, but as a designer it's important to talk in person to the client about their brand and their strengths and visit their location to soak in the personalities and atmosphere. The more you do that, the more the problem you're solving becomes palpable.
On to the visual aspects of design, wherever you are in your process, be it wireframes, style tiles or maybe a ful-page mockup, there's no need to be burning out those rods and cones in front of your screen. Pick up a pencil, a marker, a pen and sketch out your concepts, UX, or animation keyframes on paper. You'll end up with different types of ideas than you would locked on the screen. Use your hands — as the physical link between your mind and the world, they're amazingly adept tools in making creativity happen. Add handmade elements into your designs; hand draw your textures, or go out and photograph them. To further add an organic edge, you'll need variations, hiccups, mistakes and aberrations — you know, the stuff that makes us human. The computer affords us shortcuts and crutches, excelling with quantities and efficiencies, but we're going for craft here, not the first thing that oozes out of your brain into a grid with a color palette. Real honest-to-goodness ideas that are built to last. Chop them up, piece them back together, rearranging and substituting out and in, subtly nudging to chisel down something uniquely fitting the problem at hand.
All these ideas and thoughts need space to bounce around and for other outside influences to join in. Don't forget the role of the cooling process in the forging of metal, its importance up there with the warming process. Stuffing constant information into your sack full of ideas isn't going to solve the problems for you. Where's the meaning going to seep in? An outdoor lunch, walk or even run (don't rule out a field trip) takes you out of 'your' world and bombards it with influences, opinions and well, life. Notice how you interact with others or the spaces around you or and be aware of what kind of details you can glean, adding perhaps tiny interactions to the site. Inject all that back into your project, breathing that life into the subject: your design solution. Its like your own little pinocchio!
And of course at all stages of your creative process, get up and interact. Conversing isn't just throwing idle words at the wall to fill up time - it involves exchange and change, pretty vital in any problem solve. You should be working very closely with those people in charge of copy, concept, programming...and don't forget the client too. Share feedback face to face on those handy sheets of paper you've got stacked in every corner. Post what you can on the wall. Avoid sending around group emails for critiquing wherever you can. It's important for the culture, and it makes you and the team interactions (and maybe the project) less bionic.
What about all the real-world limitations of pulling these day-builders off? The client has deadlines, the agency needs to bill and there's a path of seemingly less resistance that makes everyone happy enough (for a short time) and keep the waters still. Diluting other things found on the web, dropping in generic or trendy elements, focusing a little too closely on the bottom line, being dishonest or even manipulating the end user. It may involve more inertia, more of you, but not necessarily your time (many of these suggestions have a way of smoothing out the process with the client anyway). I recommend you be a good designer, be a good person. In the end, you'll have conversed and interacted, been bombarded and stepped back to air it all out. I'll bet the project will be that much more memorable as well in the end. It work, but it's work that you feel good doing. And that's a damn good feeling. So put your heart into it.
How about a visit to Liquified Design.