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 find minimalism to be somewhat fascist in nature. 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. Simplifying is not necessarily making something more elegant, it can also mean the dumbing-down of something quite sophisticated in its complexity.

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)

UX Best Practices

Overview

Messaging

Deliver the right message to the right person at the right time.

Content

Use content to drive interaction.

User Interface

Ensure a smooth path to content and conversion.

Layout & User Flows

Optimize for conversion while facilitating research.

Mobile (part of Layout)

Enable technology-agnostic user experiences .

Look & Feel

Capture brand awareness while aligning with demographics.

Typography (part of Look & Feel)

Maximize clarity and impact while ensuring brand identity compliance.


Messaging + Content

Structure

A good site structure means it is purposeful, with subpages that drive user engagement. Page structure should present content in a convincing order that moves users to convert.

Messaging

Good messaging supports and drives to the desired response; product benefits and offer details are convincingly presented; a sense of urgency is instilled in users.

Research

A good research score means content drives engagement and facilitates research of products and offers; information is clear and RTB:s convincing; amount of copy well balanced.

CTAs

Good CTAs are strong and compelling; urgency is underlined; benefits of and reasons for taking action are emphasized, and drive action.

Diversity

A good score means content is rich and varied; many different forms of content drive engagement and highlight different aspects of the brand, the products and the offers.

Segmentation

A well segmented user experience has separate pages and/or separate sections devoted entirely to and tailored for specific audience segments.


User Interface

Navigation

Good navigation means menu is well designed and functional; navigation is straight-forward; paths to content are clear and confidence in navigation is high.

Iconography

Good iconography means icons are well designed and purposeful; they facilitate navigation and/or scanning of content; they clarify site structure and/or product offering.

Conversion Point

A good conversion point means the online form and/or offline click-to-call are very well designed and structured. Form adjusts to user needs (multi-step, expanding sections, etc).

Clarity

Good clarity means objectives of the page are very clear and page drives deliberate action to and through funnel. Conversion is simple and effortless.

Exit Links

An appropriate amount of exit links means 0-5 links on page or, if more, with visibility mitigated through design and UI, so as to not interfere with product research or conversion.

Features

A good score means page contains several useful interactive features that aid users in finding the right product and/or offer, and make the experience more purposeful.


Layout

Scannability

Good visual structure means the page is easily scannable for cues; typography and/or visual elements provide ample clarity on how to digest the content.

Use of Space

Good use of page real-estate means important content is given a maximized amount of space and the page mostly lacks gratuitous elements.

Placement

Good placement of content and functional elements means user paths are strong; page hierarchy is clear; all vital content is arranged at the top.

Separation of Content

A good score means enforced content integrity with strong visible demarcation; page grid is applied consistently; page elements contrast well..

Whitespace

Well balanced amounts of whitespace creates a clear visual structure with breathing room and purposeful visual emphasis that guides the eye.

Viewport Adaptation

Good utilization of the available viewport size means content and design applied with full responsive alignment; mobile and desktop dynamically served with same code.


Look-and-Feel

Brand Experience

Good brand experience means brand presence should be strong; adherence to brand identity should be consistent; brand recognition should be easy, and the brand experience should continue beyond the channel.

Aesthetics

Good aesthetics entail a modern/non-dated look-and-feel that is appropriate for the target audience; aesthetics should be consistent; visual impact should be distinctive and memorable and visual impression pleasing.

Typography

Good typography entails clear legibility and text hierarchies; purposeful text size; appropriate leading; sophisticated and consistent choice of fonts.

Imagery

Good imagery entails use of appropriate images of high quality; image compression should be effective and unnoticeable; appropriate size, cropping and composition, with purposeful treatments.

Use of Color

Good color usage means it supports the content and layout; colors match; the choice of colors elevates the experience; color facilitates scanning and reading.

Design Execution

Good quality of design execution means no visual flaws are apparent.

Four Flavors of Estimation

As UX practitioners, we all get roped into estimation meetings from time to time. But not all estimation efforts are the same. There are basically four different kinds of estimation, they all have different purposes, and they require different responses from us:

  1. True Estimation:
    • What’s the ask? “Here’s exactly what we’re doing; how long does this take?”
    • What’s most important? Giving an accurate account of the work involved.
    • What’s really being estimated? Effort and resources.
    • What you should ask: What’s the scope? What are the tasks? What’s the timeline?
    • Recommendation: Ensure that scope and tasks are clearly defined before estimation begins. If scope is only broadly defined, go to #2. Estimate task by task and resource by resource. Pad each estimate to allow for meetings, reviews and edits, or estimate those activities separately, or delimitate the estimate by excluding those activities entirely.
  2. Scoping + Estimation:
    • What’s the ask? “What can we do for this client, and how long does that take?”
    • What’s most important? Making appropriate recommendations, and making the business case for them.
    • What’s really being estimated? A list of recommended activities, and typical estimates per activity and resource.
    • What you should ask: What’s the goal of this project?
    • Recommendation: Ask to do scoping separately and get Account Management to commit to a fixed set of activities, and then add up the typical hours per activity. Give each activity an estimate in a range of hours, based on a high level complexity assessment. If scoping is not in the cards, go to #3.
  3. Guesstimation:
    • What’s the ask? “Here’s roughly what we think we should do; how long does this take?” (a k a “How long is a piece of string?”)
    • What’s most important? Cost.
    • What’s really being estimated? Resources required, number of hours that can be allocated per day per resource, and the approximate calendar time required to get it done.
    • What you should ask: How specific does the guesstimate need to be? (If very specific, go to #1 or #2).
    • Recommendation: Ensure that the person asking for the guesstimate is aware that it will be very rough. Scope the effort in broad categories, and do not define specific deliverables. Put your estimate in a range, never a fixed set of hours. The less defined the categories are, the greater the range. Do not accept being challenged on the guesstimate – if the requester wants you to be more precise, they need to provide more detail, either by going to #1 or #2.
  4. Adjustimation:
    • What’s the ask? “Here’s how long we have; what can you do in that timeframe?”
    • What’s most important? Speed to market.
    • What’s really being estimated? The priority of the project, how many resources can be freed up, and the time available.
    • What you should ask: How important is this? What is the client expecting? What’s the MVP?
    • Recommendation: Judge, based on prioritization, the percentage of hours available per resource within the allotted timeframe, and sum up how many hours can be spent on the specific project.Then ask each resource to define what they can accomplish in that amount of time. Be clear about the timeframe – if the due date is pushed out, the adjustimate has to be bumped up, since team members will continue working. Do not accept being challenged on the adjustimate – if the requester wants you to be more precise about what can be accomplished, they need to allow more time, either by going to #1 or #2.

Also, see: The Project Calculator™ (requires Flash)

Improving As A Designer

Designers mostly grow along a similar evolutionary curve:  starting out wanting to learn and get increasingly proficient with the tools at hand, building up their professionalism and gradually improving timeliness and efficiency, and then ultimately evolving into a role where they can apply their acquired skills in a bigger perspective.

The problem is, most of the early efficiency- and professionalism-related qualities are sort of at a price-of-admission level. If we’re playing Devil’s Advocate for a bit here, timeliness and efficiency are qualities that can be replicated just as well (and possibly more cost-effectively) through outsourcing, and so that is not enough for anyone as a professional to build on. What makes the most sense for an employer, in terms of maintaining creative capabilities in-house, is that designers add something beyond mere production capacity. That something is knowledge.

As creatives, we need to become aggregators and keepers of knowledge and insights: insights that are accrued through experience specific to the company we work for, and their clients – insights that are to some degree proprietary, and could only be found there. That way, we present a value-add that justifies our involvement on a deeper level – a resource that is sought out and desired, and not just used for convenience.

Beyond timeliness and efficiency (which are mostly at a tactical level), having a better grasp of the chain of execution, and becoming better at tactical ideation, I would also recommend each individual designer to eventually move his/her development path to into areas of strategic relevance. Connecting creative solutions and ideas to business needs and insights about user behaviors, and expanding the production process to determine not just HOW things are done, but WHY they’re done that way, and how they SHOULD be done, given the business objectives of our clients, is what matters most.

Becoming an efficient and skilled designer is an objective that represents a good starting point. Already being efficient and pro-active in planning out work means an evolving designer would have room to expand his or her perspective and take on work with a broader, more strategic scope. As a designer starts to gain insights into how the output of the work is performing, it will become natural to start questioning and discussing those things at the outset of a project, rather than trying to figure out how to make things work when already knee-deep in it. And as one starts feeling more confident about being involved and active in a larger ideation context, the designer will be able to apply his or her ideas in ways that connect the dots, not just in terms of what works from a creative, communicative perspective, but what actually improves the bottom line results. 

I strongly encourage each designer to embark on that journey – of asking why, not just asking how. I write this not necessarily for the purpose of designers climbing some kind of career ladder, but for the understanding of the “why” to inform the design, so that the work is and stays relevant, allowing each individual designer to become more than an efficient creative resource, but also a collaborator whose insights add value. Those are the types of team members who can never be replaced, and that is what a strong creative team needs.

That is the way I see the individual goals of a designer and the goals of a creative team coming together, and this is also how a team together can ensure that maintaining an in-house creative department makes sense for our employers in a business perspective. Because, ultimately, being efficient and timely, while admirable, is what’s expected of us, and that kind of capacity can unfortunately always be found at a lower price somewhere else. So, we need to add something more than that, something that the company cannot put a price on. Figuring out what that “extra” thing is for each individual designer is what is going to be the most important going forward in their careers, beyond their current situation.

Best Practices, Says Who?

Sometimes, it seems no practice is more saturated with (mostly) well-intentioned tips, guidelines and dos-and-don’ts than UX. I’ve lost count of all the Top 10 lists on the subject I’ve read and already forgotten. Online media is overflowing with articles and blog posts (much like this one) that purport to objectively lay down the law of what is good and right in the realm of user experiences, even though UX people are usually the first to caution against generalizations and to acknowledge that all users are different.

However, once in a while, you stumble on a piece of writing that makes you think and take stock of what you know, or think you know, about UX. Those pieces are usually the most meaningful ones, not because they give you pre-packaged, wholesale “truths”, but because they force you to try and frame your own truth.

Here is such a piece: http://thehipperelement.com/post/128705195169/15-ux-commandments

To summarize, the blog post outlines 15 basic tenets of good UX:

  1. Only ask the questions to which you really need answers.
  2. Demonstrate uncertainty.
  3. Reconstruct your own previous errors of thought and elucidate to your colleagues and clients what factors lead to a changed mind.
  4. Do not let the terms with which you understand the world get in the way of understanding it.
  5. Give up any desire to be the smartest person in the room.
  6. Remember that people — including you — have bodies, and bodies require movement, sustenance, rest, and relief.
  7. Leave room for creativity.
  8. Preserve and sustain whatever delusions you’ve found necessary to behave in good faith.
  9. Do not be afraid to state the obvious.
  10. A socratic bully is still a bully.
  11. Thoroughly prepare, including making preparations to abandon your preparations entirely.
  12. Listen with your body.
  13. Suspect charisma.
  14. Conduct yourself in such a way that your colleagues can eventually forget that you exist.
  15. It never hurts to start with the basics.

I found this blog post to be very interesting, but to me, who’s been in marketing most of my professional life, it’s also quite provocative. It’s a bit if a challenge to apply these tenets to marketing and sales, which is more about persuasion than usability; more about making experiences seductive than rational. The blog post seems to dismiss this as immoral, and while I can see that point, I think it is a bit naive and simplistic, and represents the issue in a one-dimensional manner.

The most concrete way I run into the dichotomy between functionality and persuasion in my work is when people ask me to apply “industry best practices”. It’s clear to me that clients don’t necessarily mean the same thing by that as do UX practitioners. To clients, “best practices” means that which through testing has been proven to increase conversions, but to UX practitioners, “best practices” typically means that which empowers users to do what they need to do, and facilitates task completion, as can be proven out in usability studies.

These two interpretations need to be reconciled, because ultimately, the most basic premise of marketing is that you can affect a change in what consumers want and intend to do, and that consumers may not always be 100% sure about what that is beforehand. So, at the very least UX should, in a marketing context, strive to support that decision-making process. And whenever someone tries to aid someone else’s decisions, it would be foolish to think that such an outside influence would not inherently affect the outcome. Whether that influence is moral or immoral is defined by what the suggested outcome is, not by the mere act of influencing the decision. Obviously, suggesting a donation to charity is not immoral, but suggesting a purchase of a product produced with child labor is. Either way, I would argue that there is no such thing as a perfectly unbiased or unaffected choice. As human beings, our choices are never entirely free.

So, what constitutes a “best practice” in an interactive medium depends on what the desired outcome is, and who is asking the question.

So you’re going into business for yourself

Congratulations!

That is both exciting and empowering. It will be the most challenging thing you’ve ever attempted, but also the most rewarding. It will require lots of very hard work, but the good thing about working for yourself is, it won’t feel like work.

Have you thought about a name for your business? A logo? What you want your company to stand for, and which values you want to deliver for your clients? If not, here’s some friendly advice from one who has been there, done that.

As it relates to your new brand, three (3) things are more important than others:

1) Relevance,
2) Uniqueness and
3) Consistency

Relevance in that your brand story must ring true, and speak to the reason for you being in business; what your passion is and what you want to accomplish for your clients. This is your brand’s promise; why clients will be drawn to you and what they’ll remember you by, and it must imprint some of your values in their minds. Think of it as your “elevator pitch” ­ what you will tell people about yourself and your business if you only had 10­-15 seconds, and what kind of mental image you wish that story to leave behind.

Uniqueness because you’re not alone on the market; you have competitors for your clients’ business and you must seek to set yourself apart from them, while still keeping an eye on that relevance. Merely being different will do you no good if the way you are different is not relevant to your prospective clients. On the other hand, being relevant is equally meaningless if there are thousands of others who offer the exact same kind of relevance; that is after all what signifes a cliché. My experience is that many business owners instinctively tend to want to align themselves too closely with what they see as “the typical way of doing things” in their line of business. But what is typical is not unique and that pulls the rug out from under any marketing effort. If your value proposition is not unique, you have no advantage over the competition, and there is no compelling reason for a prospective client to choose you. Many new start­ups flounder that way.

Consistency because the way a brand is applied speaks to clarity of vision, professionalism, confidence and determination. A consistently applied brand also helps people remember you, recognize you and find you, which is especially important these days, when any service provider is but a Google search away. So, whether on a website, a letterhead, a business card, on Facebook or in a print ad, your name and brand must be consistent and facilitate recognition; much like heraldry used to do on the battlefield. So, make sure your flag flies high, and stands out.

Hope that’s helpful. Good luck!