“No one crumples a blank sheet of paper”
Three ideas for capturing the ever-elusive strike of inspiration
Inspiration is a fascinating little creature. Ever elusive and difficult to nail down, it strikes on its own schedule, and rarely when you most need it. I have no hard and fast rules to follow, but had an experience today that might put me on the right track. This is giving me some ideas for how I can recreate the experience the next time I’m waiting for inspiration to strike.
Idea 1: Frustration kills creativity. Give in or let it go, don’t fight it.
This week I’m working on a fairly standard marketing website project, which is different from the software interface design stuff I’ve been focused on for the last few years.
Before I transitioned into software, though, marketing webpages were the norm for me. I always approached them from the viewer’s perspective, and was often frustrated by the clients, creative directors, and account managers who wanted something that I frankly believed nobody visiting the site would care about.
While I buy the desire to make sites beautiful and attention-getting, I firmly believe in balancing this with the content and usability of the site coming first and foremost. (Which is why transitioning to UI design was a perfect fit for me.)
So as a UX person working on a marketing site, I’ve been struggling. When the marketing director tried describing how she felt about my mockups, which were clean, straightforward, and concise, I felt like she was speaking a different language, using words that mean one thing to really say something else.
But I listened to her ideas, had her sketch something out on a post-it note, said, “Okay, maybe that could work,” and went back to the drawing board. My idea was good, but stubbornly holding onto it wasn’t going to help the situation. I let it go, and was able to see the value in someone else’s idea.
Idea 2: Different approaches can reach the same goal. Be flexible with your process
With the new idea in mind, I went back through my normal design process of sketching, wireframing, and working through the user experience and flow. It wasn’t as fleshed out in my mind as my original idea, which had come to me mostly through intuition, and practically mocked itself up in Photoshop.
The new idea felt like something I was approaching from the outside, seeing its fuzzy form from a distance at first, waiting to find out exactly what form it would take.
This time, to get there, I had to trust a more traditional design process. When you follow a design process, you can make progress towards a finished product without really knowing what exactly the final product is.
Sometimes I approach a project with a vision in mind, other times the final vision comes much later. Sometimes I jump right into a Photoshop mockup, other times I start with flow diagrams and whiteboard sketches. It’s important for me to be flexible with my approach and not try to force the same process onto every project.
Idea 3: Let your brain go where it will. It might surprise you where it ends up
I had gotten to the point where it was time to turn my wireframes into Photoshop mockups, but for some reason I was procrastinating. I was still waiting for the vision of this new idea to solidify in my head, and wasn’t really sure what was going to happen. What I had wireframed was okay, but I guess I wasn’t sure it was going to fare any better than my original idea, and I didn’t want to put in a lot of time on it until I was more sure.
I could have forced myself to get to work and start Photoshopping, which is a technique that sometimes works, but I didn’t. Instead, I was poking around my computer aimlessly, when I came across a browser window full of tabs I had opened a few days back when surfing the web at home on my laptop, looking up window treatments for my apartment.
Of all things I should have been doing, I ended up spending the morning picking out curtains, so to speak. I made myself some tea, stumbled across a photo of a beautiful living room and fell in love with someone’s Chesterfield sofa, learned all about Top-down, Bottom-up blinds, and on and on.
There’s a reason people often quote the Don Draper line from Mad Men about “letting our creatives be unproductive until they are.” After a morning off from thinking about my project, I suddenly found myself sitting at lunch with a full-fledged, living, breathing vision in my head of what I was going to do with yesterday’s idea on a post-it.
I have no idea where it came from. I wasn’t looking for it, or even so much as thinking about it while so absorbed in my research into home decor. But at the end of two hours of not thinking about it at all, I was suddenly bursting with the feeling of a brilliant idea I couldn’t wait to share.
Inspiration is a fascinating little creature.
Or maybe “Stop saying your users are idiots.” They’re not idiots if they “don’t get” your interface. Stop making excuses and fix your interface. There’s something in it that’s unfamiliar to your users.
You don’t have to “dumb it down” either. Unfamiliar can be okay if you give users cues to learn how to make sense of this new thing you’ve created.
Don’t make something mysterious under the guise of being “creative” and then blame your users when they don’t understand how to use it. If you’re going to lead the way into uncharted territory, leave a trail so users can keep up.