Getting the Concept

Harnessing the power of divergent thinking

“People who refer to out-of-the-box see the box … People who don’t know the box even exists are the innovative thinkers.”
― Lisa Goldenberg

Ideation is about tolerating ambiguity; accepting that the ideation process is divergent by nature, and that you may not immediately be able to identify the best solution with absolute certainty.

Rejecting the notion of the single, simple answer, and continuing to search for potentially better ideas that might still be hiding around the corner, is what determines the success of any ideation process.

For some people, this ambiguity is difficult to accept, and represents a loss of control that they fear will be unproductive and result in a waste of time; that you will be making things too complicated simply because uncertainty is an inherent part of the ideation process.

These people are typically either analysis-driven strategists, or process-driven producers. They quantify success either by the clarity and singularity of the purpose, or by the efficiency and flawlessness of the execution. What they typically fail to account for is, that inbetween insightful strategy and flawless execution comes tactical ideation, where a clearly stated strategic goal gets connected to a purposeful plan of execution through a divergent set of conceptual solutions, each which may represent a viable path forward, possibly for different reasons, and all of which should at least be considered and evaluated with an open mind.

StrategyTacticsExecution

Ideation requires big picture thinking before you get into the details; before you can afford to get too specific. Without context, determining the appropriateness of an idea is mere guesswork. Sometimes, you need to think big and think broad in order to define even one single isolated detail, even if that one detail ultimately ends up being all that gets produced. However, jumping straight to that deceptively simple-looking detail is not meaningful – no solution exists in a vacuum.

The scale of the thought is not necessarily proportionate to the scope of the work. Just because the ideation process hints at a more complex whole, doesn’t mean that the solution has to be complex as well, or that it necessarily needs to be holistic in nature.

Even an umbrella needs complex weather systems to be useful. Before you know what the weather systems are like, you should not conclude that the umbrella is the answer to the problem – even if it may initially look like an appealingly simple solution.

Don’t get lost in the single-minded hunt for what’s executable, before you consider what is actually worth executing, and why.

It’s Time for Photoshop to Go Away

Photoshop-designed mock-ups remain a staple design output still, in 2017. I scratch my head and wonder why. I myself have not used Photoshop for web design purposes in 20 years.

  • The defining characteristic of digital media is interactivity. Photoshop’s focus is on visual appearance. There is no functionality in Photoshop that allows you to account for interactivity, and even if you export a PDF and make it clickable, it is an afterthought, and you can only emulate interactivity with hotspots or links, which is a very limited way to design for a truly interactive medium.
  • Websites revolve around content. Photoshop has no concept of pages, or navigation. In fact, it does not account for user experience on any level but the strictly aesthetic.
  • Web pages employ spatial layout to segment content visually, with scrolling to accommodate overflow. Photoshop works in layers. While you can certainly still map out visual elements and content across your Photoshop canvas, the tool itself does not aid you in determining how best to visually segment your real estate.
  • Photoshop is an approximation of the final result; like a sculptor’s pencil sketch compared to the final sculpture. It is not accurate enough, and its usefulness is limited. Designers need to sketch in something that is closer to the final product, in a medium that reflects reality better.
  • Photoshop is not a browser-native format. Just because something is pixel perfect in Photoshop does not mean it will make it into the final product.
  • Hand-offs from Designers to Developers using Photoshop is an inexact eye-balling process. Photoshop only provides a bare minimum of translation help when developers try to turn PSDs into working web pages.
  • Maintaining multiple Photoshop documents means revisions are costly. You will need one document per page, one document per breakpoint, and one document per version in your revision history. Add to this regional, seasonal or demographic segmentation, and the number of Photoshop files will very quickly become unmanageable, and each round of edits will be progressively more costly.
  • With each document, each file and each version shared with the client, the risk of discrepancies increases, which means you will need to spend an incremental amount of time on QA.

Most forward-looking designers have been prototyping for years now, rather than creating visual mock-ups and iterating on them until the client is happy with the result. Problem is, that result is not the result that matters: what the page looks like in the browser is what matters.

So, for designers working in the digital space, it’s about time that we retired Photoshop. It may still have its uses, but web design isn’t one of them.

Here’s my recommendation: http://uxpin.com

In Defense of Modern Art

Let me start with a statement: the rejection of art, in any shape or form, is not something I take lightly. But fundamentally, I find skepticism towards historic art and towards modern art to be different – I think the former can be healthy, progressive and analytical, whereas the latter is often prematurely judgmental and restrictive.

At the risk of sounding pretentious, art is my life’s blood, my religion if you will. I make a living off of creativity, ideas and concepts, and art feeds into that on every level; it’s literally what nurtures me and gives my life meaning. Furthermore, I see creativity in a moral context, as one of few human instincts that are fundamentally good and meaningful in a broader perspective. I also see it in a political context, in that I tend to perceive political conservatism as an enemy, because a “liberal” (open minded) interpretation of art is impossible in a conservative world. Conservatism seeks to at the very least slow down progress, or possibly even reverse it, and return us to a world where everything is known and defined, and that is the direct antithesis of open-mindedness, which makes it an enemy of art.

I need art to be open, to be full of possibilities, to be open to interpretation. The more we limit it, it becomes a restriction on creativity, which is what I live and breathe. I hold this to be especially true for modern art, because I see that as the first artistic movement that truly transcended the physical properties of art; where the visuals exist merely as a trigger for the concepts and ideas, and (possibly) the provocation. You’re not supposed to admire the image of a Campbell’s soup can, that is not the purpose. Modern art is not idolatry or fetishism, but it attempts to shine a light on it. In that sense, I see modern art as something that can become anything, that reflects back at us, whereas traditional art is already a (mostly) defined, known quantity that is dependent on a historical context. I have no desire to whitewash it and I do see great value in it, but I don’t want to see it used to limit the future potential of art. Saying modern art has no value, or that it has somehow become unmoored from it’s true purpose is, to me, basically denying the promise of art.

If you think about it, we can’t base new art on old values and traditions, that’s just not meaningful. It becomes pastiche and deliberate recreation of concepts and artistic principles that aren’t fully relevant anymore, or at least not understood in the same context. It actually turns self-referential, whittling down its own scope, and art then becomes a game of Pictionary instead of a Rorschach test. The former has one definite answer, whereas the latter can point to any answer.

But let me be clear: I’m not threatening to take away anybody’s art – historic art is still there, in all it’s glory. So please don’t threaten to take away mine. Because “my” art is the promise of art yet to come, and I see modern art as a springboard for that. Something that departs from the old and tries to redefine the broader concept of art. An art that is freed from the unnecessary restrictons of paint, canvas and marble, where creativity and ideas are allowed to fly in complete freedom, and can take any form.

Perhaps I feel this way simply because art, while not technically what I do per se, at least informs it on a very intimate level, on a daily basis. I have no wish to invalidate anyone’s perspective on art, but recognize that they are, by definition, very personal and can be vastly different. Therefore, words and attitudes towards art do matter, in a very real and tangible sense. Consider if a lawyer was forced to sit through a procession of legal trials where due process was ignored and the outcomes distorted, to the point where it eventually started whittling down his or her belief in the law and the legal system’s capability to deliver justice. That is similar to how the dismissal of art, and the potential of art, affects me.

So, once again, I have no desire to reject any art of any kind, and I have no understanding of such rejection. I love art. All sorts of art. But the art of the past is already in the bank. We cannot erase it, nor should we, and it will always be there for us to enjoy, even if we look at it judgingly, or with skepticism. The principles of artistic creation and artistic discovery, however, require that you as an artist separate yourself from what has gone before, and actually try to become more childlike. Otherwise, your output becomes a play with styles and predefined concepts, and you’re stuck in pastiche territory. Of course, one cannot completely disown the traditions of one’s craft, and nobody really does, but the point is that you have to try; try to set yourself free. And that also goes for commercial expectations, which impose financial yardsticks and artificial limitations on the potential validity of art.

I derive a very deep sense of stimulus from looking at period art, but also find that it is much harder to disassociate from its contextual framework and significance. I look at it and get hit by a truckload of connotations that really have nothing to do with the art itself. And that makes it carry very little value to me in a strictly professional sense. I simply cannot be inspired by it, or it will own me as opposed to the other way around. And I then become an artistic derivative.

So, I really am not trying to reject historic art, because I couldn’t. It’s there already. But I have to try to at least filter it out as it relates to the art yet to come, because in the sense that I’m looking at art, I want to keep an open mind. In the sense that my work is in any way informed by art, I want there to be only possibilities, because limitations affect my creativity, which can honestly be a very delicate and fragile thing. That is why words matter; why the rejection of modern art matters. I meet with clients on a daily basis whose general perceptions of art, design and creativity are, as always, very personal and often quite restrictive. This continues to whittle away my sense of creative freedom, little by little, and make me more jaded and disillusioned with what I can hope to achieve from a creative standpoint. I’ve seen this thousands of times; aging creatives who lose their spark and cave in under a constantly growing mountain of artistic prejudice. It’s (at best) a tyranny of tradition, or (at worst) a tyranny of mediocrity. I think maybe it’s a little like a songwriter who is always expected to play only his or her biggest hits, and who eventually fails to preserve integrity and therefore becomes a walking nostalgia machine.

I never try to interpret art in the moment. I focus very hard to keep an open mind and let the art plant seeds that I may be able to harvest later. But I find that art exhibits differ greatly in that sense: in a modern art exhibit I feel more like a participant, whereas in a historic art exhibit, I am reduced to a spectator.

In many ways, art is my religion, but it is not my God. I don’t worship it, I practice it. Intolerance for that practice does affect me, and it does take away from what I feel my religion can accomplish. It sets limits for what I want to believe is boundless, what I need to believe is without restrictions. I feel it can accomplish so much, but only as long as people are willing to suspend judgment – because my religion is non-judgmental, unlike theist religions such as Christianity for instance, which aims to judge us all and condemning nonbelievers to an eternity in Hell. Being reminded of that kind of intolerance, judgment and restrictive thinking really does affect me, and it sometimes even makes me want to give up. Given every individual’s own personal relationship with art, you don’t need to agree with my beliefs, but if you say what I believe has no value, it saps the creative energy out of me and makes me feel I’m on a fools errand. Kills my mojo.

Put plainly, there’s an abyss between saying you don’t like something, and to suggest that society has no need for it. The former sparks debate, which is healthy. The latter threatens to restrict creative freedom.

The bottom line is, I don’t want to take art away from anyone, nor do I want others to simply keep their art, or their definition of art, to themselves – I would like to share it with them. And my hope is that they would be open minded enough to share “my” art in return. Unfortunately, rejecting the promise of modern art makes that impossible. On the other hand, suspending judgment on behalf of someone you might be able to respect, trying to see and accept that point-of-view as valid (even if it’s not for you personally), that is a beautiful thing.

Which, in closing, is why I think modern art is so important not just to me as an individual, but for society as a whole. We need to allow the yet unborn child of art to form its own identity, as much as it is possible, and suspend judgment enough to believe the child will grow into an individual who will be able to contribute to society in its own way. Not expect the baby to instantly compare favorably to previous generations who might have passed away, but who will always be cherished in memory.

If historic art is for you, then you already have it. I can’t take it away from you, nor would I want to. Modern art, on the other hand, is to a large extent the art that is yet to come. Its existence and its value is yet to be determined. Which is why I ask that you hold off on your judgment, and let it at least try to prove itself to you. 

The UX / Account Dynamic

Who are you?

When someone promises to do great work for you, you want to know who that person is. But to clients, a UX team is often completely anonymous.

Successful UX work for clients depends on two things:

  • Understanding: You have to be able to engage with the client1-on-1, to truly understand their needs.
  • TrustClients have to feel that they can trust you, and rely on you to do great work for them.

Understanding

For UX to truly understand the client, you can’t rely solely on second- or third-hand information. You have to ask questions, and allow the client to explain things to you. Many times, solutions are defined in direct conversations with clients, and vice versa: mistakes often occur through misunderstandings due to a lack of communication.

Trust

For the client to trust you, they have to know who you are, get a sense that you understand them, and be able to interact with you directly in order to feel confident that you know what you’re doing. There is little reason for a client to trust the UX abilities of an agency based only on interactions with Account- or Project Management.

The UX Engagement – opening or closing?

When you can demonstrate that you understand the client’s needs, it expands the client engagement.

When the client feels you don’t understand them, it reduces their trust in you, and the engagement starts to shrink.

When the engagement is wide, you have a productive, direct and collaborative relationship that fosters more trust, and yields stronger results, possibly leading to more business opportunities.

When the engagement is narrow, the communication suffers and more mistakes are made, causing more distrust, which puts the entire client relationship at risk, possibly leading to a loss of business.

How can you improve?

If you are noticing signs that the client engagement is shrinking, you need to act quickly and decisively, analyze you we think this is happening, and take action to improve the situation.

Here are some suggestions:


  1. POSSIBLE CAUSE: Your work is inadequate. Depending on the amount of disagreement you’re getting from a client, you have to consider the possibility that the work you’re producing is simply not good enough. If this is indeed the case, you need to be honest about that, and talk about what can be done to get better. If you never talk about it, you cannot improve!
    LIKELIHOOD
    :
    low 

    SOLUTION: Reassign people internally to optimize your staffing on the account, and note where you need to improve through future hires. You can also consider bringing in contractors if you have enough lead time, and can identify specifically which skillsets are lacking. However, it should be understood that there is often an inertia inherent in this approach, if there are financial barriers to hiring, and/or a lack of visibility into upcoming projects. Also, UX resources are very much in demand at the moment, so securing premium talent can be very costly.

    What UX can do: Engage with you to identify the competences that are missing (or lacking), and determine whether reassignment or hiring would be the most appropriate action.


  2. POSSIBLE CAUSE: You fail to ”sell” the client on your solutions. You may not be engaging with the client in a sufficiently convincing manner when you are presenting, and in trying to explain why you have chosen a certain solution.
    LIKELIHOOD
    :
    high

    SOLUTION: Agencies often tend to either send over deliverables via email, or present via screen-share and conference phone. This is far from ideal when you need to win the client over for a specific solution. Where you need to assert confidence, instill trust and convey enthusiasm about what you have to present, you should be there in person. If you can’t be, then you need to at least ensure that our presentations are solid, and not rushed through in 30-minute phone calls (which is the industry rule rather than the exception).

    What UX can do: Help you develop a convincing presentation, and present to the client.


  3. POSSIBLE CAUSE: You fail to properly explain the solutions you’re proposing. It is possible that you are devoting an insufficient amount of attention to explaining how you intend for your solutions to work.  (Also, see #4 below)
    LIKELIHOOD
    :
    medium

    SOLUTION: (see #4 below)

    What UX can do: Help you produce write-ups that document our proposals better, and supply visual presentation materials to better clarify the solution. We can also assist you in presenting directly to the client as needed.


  4. POSSIBLE CAUSE: The client simply does not understand. It is also possible that the client, due to issues on their own side, simply cannot relate to what you’re trying to present. This could be a lack of prior experience with these solutions, or a lack of focus on what you’re trying to solve for, or possibly a lack of buy-in.
    LIKELIHOOD
    :
    medium

    SOLUTION: You may need to educate the client better on what you’re doing. For specific purposes, where you need the client’s buy-in on a more complicated solution, you may need to prototype functionality, or provide the client with a reference URL to a similar solution. At the very least, you need to have a solid write-up of how you intend for the solution to work, and Account would be well within their rights to request that UX produce such a write-up. It is a mistake for Account to undertake this task themselves, not just because UX is better suited for it, but because UX’s absence in the rationalization of our solutions may actually make the client extra skeptical (see #5 below).

    What UX can do: Produce more detailed write-ups. Research similar solutions and supply more background materials, to make the solution clearer, and put your recommendations in context.


  5. POSSIBLE CAUSE: The client does not trust you as subject matter experts. The client may compare you unfavorably to other agencies they have worked with, or they may simply be untrusting: their internal dynamics may cause them to not want to trust external partners in general.
    LIKELIHOOD
    :
    high

    SOLUTION: First of all, you need to continuously iterate how well your programs are performing, if there is no reason to suspect that your UX solutions are leaving a lot of conversions on the table. Second, you need to affirm that you see your role as being strategic, and consultative: it is your job to offer recommendations. In particular, to ensure that the client doesn’t feel like you’re just throwing things at the wall to see what sticks, you should strive to support our solutions with reference examples from other projects, and also share insights outside of the cadence of regular projects. It is also important to leverage the expertise you have in-house when you present. The person who develops a solution is usually the best one to present it, or at least speak to it. An “outsider” cannot always adequately speak to the rationale behind a solution, or imbue the presentation with the same belief in the solution as one who actually worked on it. Building respect for your abilities with the client has to start with internally respecting the professionals behind those abilities.

    What UX can do: Help connect the dots between the goals and the results, and remove some of the subjectivity.


  6. POSSIBLE CAUSE: The client likes to micromanage their agencies. Not all clients are collaborative by nature, and some may simply feel more comfortable directing what you’re doing to a greater extent than other clients. This is not necessarily a problem, if the required direction actually materializes, and is clear and intelligible. If it’s not, you’re basically stuck with a client who knows what they want, but is not very good at articulating what that is, which may cause you to go back and forth an excessive number of times to get things right.
    LIKELIHOOD
    :
    high

    SOLUTION: This requires some coaching, to get the client to commit to what it is they want – preferably in writing, by requiring more formalized creative briefs, but also by requiring consolidated feedback, in a pre-defined number of rounds (see #7 below).

    What UX can do: Provide tools and deliverables with which to manage the review and approval processes, and ensure the fidelity in what is presented in the early stages, so that it is also reflected in what is delivered (example: prototypes). For this reason, I recommend not relying on mock-ups, since they will inevitably be less accurate and cause discrepancies which may further cause doubt and uncertainty.


  7. POSSIBLE CAUSE: The client changes their minds a lot. It is possible that the client is not thinking through their responses prior to delivering them, or that they are not all on the same page, or that they simply have a hard time making consistent decisions, for whatever reason.
    LIKELIHOOD
    :
    medium

    SOLUTION: This problem requires a more formalized approach to reviews, possibly using formal approval documents that require the client’s signature, and you also need to express clearly how many times the client is allowed to ask for edits, and what the costs are for edits that go beyond that limit. If there are no costs, or if those costs are not clearly communicated, the client is not properly incentivized to keep rounds of revisions down, and may continue to revise indefinitely.

    What UX can do: Provide more structure in how you manage feedback and rounds of revisions, with the aid of a task management and issue tracking system. Push back when feedback is incomplete or inconsistent, and point out where you need more details, or have questions.


  8. POSSIBLE CAUSE: You don’t always present to the right people. In many cases, clients may bring in other people to weigh in on what you have presented after the fact. Such is usually the case with client brand- or compliance teams, for instance. In other cases, you may only get to present to a few of the people who should have been present for the presentation.
    LIKELIHOOD
    :
    high

    SOLUTION: You should be more deliberate about who you need to present to, and not allow presentations to happen when there are notable absentees on the client’s side. You have to be able to hold them accountable for feedback when you, in return, are spending time producing things to review. You’re well within your rights to ask that presentations be rescheduled when the right people can’t be present. You also need to ask that you be allowed to interface directly with brand- or compliance teams, because they often get to have a disproportionate say over what goes on, especially when they’re involved by proxy. These are people with a mandate to demand changes if things are not aligned with their standards, but they are also the very people who can assent to a compromises when that is appropriate.

    What UX can do: Engage with client brand and marketing teams to ensure you’re speaking the same language.


How can UX help?

UX teams typically have a broad menu of services and activities that can be used to address many of the challenges you might face with a client. It is for you to inform yourself of and review those activities, and decide which initiatives would be beneficial to the relationship with the client, both in a strategic and in a tactical perspective.

What can you do?

As an Account Manager, build bridges – don’t create silos. Partner with UX and project management, to engage in a more open dialogue, and facilitate a mutual exchange of understanding and trust. Don’t restrict client access. Champion your internal capabilities. Celebrate your successes. Everyone wins as a team.

 

Users First

“Mobile first” sound the tendentious battle cries of UX designers worldwide, suggesting that user experience design now supposedly needs to begin with mobile experiences, and build outwards from there.

I can think of at least three succinct reasons why that dictate is wrong:

First, it puts the device before the user, which is not meaningful. As designers, we are not engaging with devices, but with human beings. Do we really know that all users consistently favor small, mobile, high-resolution viewports over large, widescreen ones? I submit that the answer is no, because any such knowledge is contingent on not just awareness of user preferences, but user needs, user behaviors, and environmental circumstances, which are never consistently the same. Besides, even when factoring in these shifting parameters, we also have to consider the needs and intentions of our clients, for whom we are trying to make this interaction happen. We cannot assume that “mobile first” always makes sense in that context either.

We are currently seeing not only a convergence of web based experiences displayed on increasingly smaller devices, but a simultaneous divergence, where screens are also becoming larger – virtually all of them wired, and sometimes even interconnected.

We cannot assume anything about users until we know who they are, and what they are trying to do. This, in turn, will dictate which devices they will be using, and that should be what guides our designs – not dogmatic assumptions based on device classifications that are pre-destined to lose relevance.

Second, the statement “Mobile first” makes an implicit assumption about just what “mobile” means. The device landscape is changing so rapidly that the term itself is quickly becoming obsolete. In an age of ultralight laptops, netbooks, ”phablets” and smartwatches, just what is a “mobile device”, really?

There are mobile phones that are straddling the divide between handheld and tablet devices, both in terms of size and resolution, and there are miniature, wearable devices whose resolutions we can assume will become higher and higher in order for those devices to display more information. At the same time, there are medium sized, often lower-resolution wireless touchscreens built into appliances and cars, where display characteristics may sometimes resemble mobile devices, even though they are often fixed, and usage is entirely different from that associated with smartphones. And there are both lower and higher resolution large screen devices and projection screens that blur the boundaries even further.

This means that we cannot, and should not, lock down user experience design to one type of screen, or size. We need to design for flexibility, but even more, we need to understand how users will be accessing our experiences, and what is most important to them. Since this is very much a moving target, the combination of mobility and compact screen size will not always top the list, of that we can be certain.

Third, we must realize that, not only are device classifications increasingly arbitrary and meaningless, but that the concepts of screen size and resolution – indeed, the very concept of human-computer interaction – are equally elusive. User experience cannot be locked down to a fixed pixel density, or a certain set of screen proportions – we are even seeing the merger of digital projections and physical reality; of the two- and the three-dimensional.

User experience, especially as it relates to screen projection, is relative, and depends not only on the physical properties of the screen in question – whether a pair of eye glass lenses, or a large projection screen – but also on the user’s distance to the screen, how the user is interacting with what is displayed there, and the various environmental circumstances at play.

This is why we need to change the mantra, from “Mobile first” to “Users first”.

What matters first and foremost to users is content, not the device on which this content is displayed. And how that content is structured, hierarchically as well as visually, also matters more to them than the technology used to display it. Even the visual presentation of the content matters more than the device, since the presentation is to some extent intrinsic to the content itself, and how it is intended to be perceived and experienced. The device is merely a facilitator in this perspective.

Therefore, the due process we need to observe is content before structure before style.

Defining the content is the designer’s number one priority. Without content, there is nothing to design, and without content to guide the design, it simply becomes meaningless fluff, regardless of the device used to deliver the experience. Once we have determined the content that will best serve users’ needs, aggregating the entirety of our content, and judging the value of it by virtue of Occam’s proverbial razor, we can proceed to shape it, and adapt it to the different rendering formats.

Realizing that design is first and foremost a process of reduction, the designer always sculpts the specific, smaller shape from the larger, unspecific whole; always crops and trims the desired view from the bigger picture. This is, ultimately, why user experience design can never truly be “mobile first”. Mobile, whatever we mean by that, may possibly be the desired end state of a given design, the terminus of our design journey, but it should never be the starting point.

We need to see the whole to define its most granular pieces, and determine their respective proportions, placements and relationships. We must outline an overall composition before we can craft the pieces that comprise it. We cannot build blindly outward by accumulating and assembling fragments; an artist does not create an image by cloning and repeating small sections, but rather composes a holistic experience by sketching in the most prominent components first, and filling in the details later. We must identify the smaller building blocks within the context of the bigger construct, and define the different ways in which they fit together. If we don’t, we are essentially improvising buildings by piecing bricks together, rather than first drawing up blueprints on which to base our constructions.

Hence, starting from a site-wide perspective, the designer should always first seek to define the content as a whole, distilling it into the total number of unique views necessary to contain the experience, classifying shared, global, re-useable content blocks as well as individual pieces of content; then whittling down experiences until able to look at individual pages, and components of pages. It is in this larger context that the mobile experience can be found. Eventually, the designer will arrive at the most purposeful, granular visual structure – or layout – as part of a holistic system of design elements, first and foremost tailored to the user’s needs, scalable up or down, as needed.

Not until we have shaped our content in this reductive fashion, and structured it both hierarchically and spatially, can we begin to apply style, or “look-and-feel”, to our design, down to the individual graphic elements. Only then can we start moving from defining content, and making content accessible and digestible, to also making it palatable and persuasive.

At this point, the devices used to render our experiences should pretty much be inconsequential; a natural selection produced by a deliberate, result-oriented process. Whether our user experiences are best suited for a smartwatch, smartphone, tablet, laptop, desktop computer, or a TV screen, should really be determined primarily by user and content considerations, ideally allowing the intentions of the sender and the needs of the recipient to meet in a mutually beneficial, equally purposeful harmonious whole.

The Case Against Minimalism

Being a graphic designer, carving out a livelihood in a field so mired in visual subjectivity and aesthetic dogma, I find it impossible to navigate the professional landscape without comparing myself to other designers, and framing my own style in relation to other styles; other design paradigms.

Something I have struggled with for a very long time is the predominant preference amongst designers towards minimalism – the stern and unforgiving principle of less-is-more. It does not agree with me, or perhaps it is I who do not agree with it. And this despite my being Swedish, growing up in the Land of Minimalism, where white and off-white are sometimes your only available color choices.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand the appeal of simplicity very well, and know its ins and outs well enough to pretend-design the odd minimalist pastiche here and there. But it never feels quite right to me, and it is as much an intellectual disagreement as an emotional one.

I am a humanist at heart and I believe design is in essence a way of connecting people through aesthetics; of communicating with images and telling stories through visual metaphors. In that perspective, I simply cannot accept that human nature and minimalism are compatible.  We are not simple organisms and our psyches are not simplistic. I think that we, as human beings, live our lives to a large extent through the details, in the many nooks and crannies of human existence. I believe we are fundamentally closer to being sensual, self-indulgent hoarders than ascetic monks living in austere sensory deprivation.

This is not to say simplicity in visual expression has no value. For us as humans to be able to learn and evolve, we sometimes need clarity, reduction, precision. But it is a very restricted need that does not merit exposure in many circumstances beyond education and instruction. A large part of the human need for communication is founded in emotions, in our hardwired emotional resonance with themes and stories that connect us to the universe – the big, beautiful, complex universe. If our ancestors were truly visual minimalists, they would have left those cave walls alone. The urge to scribble, to doodle, is a profoundly human one.

To be perfectly frank, I actually find minimalism to be a form of aesthetic fascism. It dictates the eradication of visual impulses that the designer’s super-ego conformistically rules to be superfluous to an imagined singular, simplistic purpose, even though any form of communication is a two-way street and really ought to strive to open up as many touchpoints as possible between sender and recipient, to allow for more ways for us as individuals to relate and connect.

So, before you start singing the praises of the shiny designed new world order of minimalism, recognize in yourself and in others that we aren’t necessarily ruled by a need for straight 90-degree angles, flat surfaces and squeaky clean logic. We are beings with hardwired emotional, sometimes irrational responses, born out of chaos, and we live in a world of endless details, of complex correlations between multitudes of interwoven systems and principles.

Sure, there may be a certain easy, accessible beauty to be found in simplicity but, ultimately, I submit that this is a homogenous beauty quite alien to human nature. There is a greater, more human beauty to be found in chaos, in the details, in the pluralism of a multifaceted world where we suspend judgment and try to assimilate new, more complex, layered impressions.

When we minimize, we exercise a form of intolerance.

(Republished from 2012)

On Creativity

“Discovery consists of seeing what everybody has seen and thinking what nobody has thought.”
-ALBERT SZENT-GYÖRGYI

1. Creativity
Creativity is a Big word. It is indeed a rare luxury to be allowed to spend each and every day working with ideas and inventions; to be in the middle of the creative process and realize the conceptual embryos that are born in the inner depths of the brain. There is definitely a certain element of magic to it. But this kind of romanticizing makes it very difficult to relate to creativity in a practical, constructive way.

There is definitely a point in demystifying the entire creative process. For many people, the mere word “creativity” evokes an almost voodoo-like mystique, sometimes disenfranchising people and creating a stigma that prevents them from actually thinking creatively. Many people therefore instinctively and defensively reject all creative propositions, perhaps feeling that they are somehow less capable of creative thought than others, as if creativity is somehow a threat to them.

But creativity is not a supernatural force. Inspiration is not some sort of spiritual revelation or magical phenomenon that affects only a select few creative people, like a lightning bolt from above.

Creativity is an attitude. The more openly you approach the creative process, the more creative you will be.

In psychology, it is suggested that the natural creativity we all inhibit as children wears off as we grow up, and are conditioned to obey and follow the rules of society and the expectations of how adults are supposed to behave. In this perspective, the creative process is a method of freeing ourselves from the yoke of these rules, and return to our childlike selves.

2. Of course you are creative!
The first and most important step in the creative process is to shake off all the skepticism and doubt. A person who believes him- or herself to be incapable of creative thinking is very rarely creative. This has very little to do with innate capacity for creativity – you ARE creative. Anyone can plant the seeds of a good idea, it´s just a question of releasing the brain´s associative powers and give the subconscious a little more room to maneuver. This may sound hokey, but basically it’s about relaxing, letting go of that inner critic and freeing oneself from the many mental constraints we are forcing upon ourselves in our daily lives. An idea in itself is just a thought and a thought can never be harmful. But in the world of thoughts, anything is possible.

3. Creativity and spontaneity
True creativity requires a certain amount of spontaneity. This is something that can seem uncomfortable for many people, especially in our inhibited Western intellectual climate. As people, we have a penchant for applying common sense and practical methodology; to submit to unwritten laws and regulations at all times. But creativity rarely germinates in an atmosphere of caution and anxiety. Do not be afraid to make yourself look ridiculous – good ideas are usually born out of spontaneity. Be generous with yourself!

4. Creativity and triviality
A misconception that often stymies the best of creative intentions is the expectation that one´s first ideas will be brilliant. This is very rarely the case. To be creative, you have to allow yourself to make mistakes. Do not be worried if your first ideas are trivial. The brain often requires time to get up to speed – consider it an initial discovery process, where all parameters and facts must be shaken and stirred to blend together. The worst thing you can do at this stage is to begin to censor yourself. Let out the cheapest, most trivial ideas and clear the brain from all its initial superficial associations. Eventually, you will notice that your ideas are gradually becoming more and more discerning and relevant.

5. Creativity and flexibility
The French 19th century philosopher Émile Chartier supposedly said: “Nothing is more dangerous than an idea, when it’s the only one we have.”

Forget any thoughts of The Perfect Idea. It does not exist, or rather, it will not manifest itself in splendid isolation. Avoid tunnel vision. The path to the truly good, useful ideas lies not in striving for a single optimal solution, but rather in searching for as many potential solutions as possible. Only when you can compare several ideas to each other will you be able to decide which of them are the most appropriate. Do not evaluate your creative efforts too soon. Write down everything, establish categories and seek flexibility. Eventually, you will see a pattern in all the ideas and get a clearer picture of which of them you will be able to build on.

6. Creativity and multitude
It’s very easy to fall in love with one´s ideas. The itch to move on and start realizing those ideas is very hard to resist. That eagerness often tricks people into diving into an idea way too early, which is where the idiom “kill your darlings” comes into play. Imagine that there are always another ten solutions around the corner, at least five of which are going to be better than your last idea.

7. Creativity and tenacity
It is easy to despair when one feels that one has milked the brain of every ounce of creativity it could muster. But not all solutions are simple and obvious. Sometimes, the brain needs a break, to process all the accumulated thoughts. Do not give up if you hit the wall. Take a break and start anew, with fresh thoughts and rejuvenated inspiration.

8. Creativity requires nourishment
Perhaps the biggest fear of every professional designer is to face creative blockage. The way out of this dilemma is to not overstate the problem. This type of mental freeze is very common and almost always the result of the brain not having been given enough nourishment. The brain needs to be fed with new impressions and new input in order to function, much like fuel in a car. Learn to recognize the warning signs when you are trying to create something out of nothing.Take a step back, release your ambitions and seek out new inspiration and information. Eventually, the blockage will clear.

9. Creativity is open source
Creative, collaborative teamwork is very difficult, because the creative process is very tender, and newborn ideas are very delicate. We often feel that criticism of our ideas is equal to criticism of us as individuals. Therefore, the best approach to creative collaboration is to refrain from premature criticism – it is impossible to say when a single idea has reached maturity, and it is usually better to allow it time to solidify and take shape. By doing so, people have time to take stock of their own ideas and become less attached to them. In the end, if the process itself is engaging enough, people may not even always remember who came up with which idea. Everything is shared, and everyone can feel some degree of ownership. That increases the  chance that there can be a consensus on which ideas with which to move forward.

(Republished from February 2013)