CreativeMornings: How my experience has shaped me as a designer

In the closing days of the BRISBANE ART DESIGN (BAD) Festival I had the privilege of talking to an audience of local creatives as part of the CreativeMornings talk series. CreativeMornings unites cities around the world each month by providing a platform for creatives to share ideas around a central theme. For this month, we had the opportunity to occupy the Museum of Brisbane’s vibrant Dome Lounge as part of the festival’s BADideas program.

creativemornings-full

After finding insights and inspiration from so many CreativeMornings talks over the years, this was a chance to reflect on my career and ask what might be interesting about it. How did I get here and what do I even do exactly? It was good timing for this kind of self-reflection as it’s something we’ve been asking ourselves a lot recently. How do we transfer knowledge? How do we build capability? When you’ve done something long enough that it feels intuitive you can be fooled into thinking that it just comes naturally. It’s only when we step back to rationalise a particular decision or approach that we see the specific instances of learned experience from which we draw.

So with last month’s CreativeMornings theme of ‘Preserve’ I wanted to ask the question –

how-do-we-preserve 

... and is it possible to know what’s valuable, except in hindsight?

A bit of background: I got my start as a graphic designer in the late 90s, doing print design, branding, signage, marketing collateral – the usual design agency work. The web was still the Wild West in terms of design standards and quality but I was drawn to the way I could design, build something in HTML (it would be a while before CSS was widely supported) and just release it into the wild. Since then, the central spine of my career has followed the growth of this industry and the evolution of the designer’s role to encompass specialised approaches like UX, Service Design and Design Thinking. Along the way I took a sharp turn into training and working for several years as an animator and illustrator, before being lured back to interaction design with all the new possibilities hinted at by the launch of the first smartphones.

When I look at how much of my current practice draws on that experience, including everything I’ve learned from co-workers and clients, I’ve been surprised at how many seemingly niche ideas from specific disciplines are really transferable. When you unpack why an idea works in one context you can start to see how it might be applicable in others.

For example, it always fascinates me how every discipline has ways of grappling with the necessary tension between planning the big picture and resolving the small details, whether you’re a sculptor, designer, writer, or developer. When it comes to starting with broad strokes, compare the idea of the UX designer’s wireframes with the animator’s storyboard animatic. When it comes to preliminary exploration of key details, compare the artist’s study with the tech spike.

Going back to that idea of understanding the value of our experience, there seemed to be a fundamental underlying question:

what-are-we-doing

There is a romantic myth that pure creativity should flow from within us, automatic and subconscious, where we create by pure expressive intuition and reflex. I do believe that this kind of flow state is an important part of what we do, but that the quality of our creative instincts come from the conscious side of our practice, and the breadth of our collective influences.

I find there’s a natural back and forth between these states that’s important to how we work day to day, and how we develop capability in the long term.

automatic-vs-intentional

The intentional stuff is where we’re consciously reviewing our work or trying to hone our craft. It’s practising craft skills but also learning principles, best practices, examining our own applied experience and research, or learning from each other’s expertise. In our line of work, a huge part of that comes from observing real users interacting with our work.

These become the checks and balances we use when we try to consciously review whether something is working, where we can attempt to consciously compensate for our own biases or blind spots.

This balance of the automatic and intentional is like switching between the modes of being an impassioned writer and a sober editor. Or like the relationship between an athlete’s performance on the field, and all the drills, conditioning and strategy that happen off the field.

The more we put into building our intentional experience, the richer, more layered, and more nuanced our automatic work becomes.

When I bounced these ideas off our Creative Director, Andrew, he pointed me towards Kathy Sierra, who talks about this idea of how learning increases the resolution of our perception, enjoyment, or understanding. I particularly like how she draws a link between this idea and passion.

I think it’s also no coincidence that we see this same kind of pattern playing out in places like the “Double Diamond” process model. There’s something about this alternating rhythm of going wide then narrowing in, of ideation and refinement, that gets the best of both worlds – the space for new ideas to grow and the discipline of turning them into practical action.

double-diamond

 

Pulling levers and understanding their effect

Digging into that intentional side of our work, I like to look for the specific practical details that act as levers we can pull when trying to achieve some kind of effect.

Let’s say you want to get good at tennis. You can get a good start from hitting a ball against a brick wall, but eventually your ability will hit a ceiling. If you were to learn from a tennis coach – someone with a high resolution sense of playing tennis – you could discover the practical effects that adjusting your grip or your foot positioning have on your swing. In practice, a tennis swing is a whole of body movement, but it’s made up of countless micro-adjustments to these kinds of levers that happen on the fly as your body and a tennis ball hurtle towards one another.

The takeaway here is to ideally look at our own work and ask, “What’s the equivalent of grip or foot positioning of my craft?”

For design, it’s things like hierarchy, proportion, rhythm, and contrast. It’s understanding the effects of these as we pull them in opposing directions, and how relationships between them can work together to create harmony, or tension, or guide our users’ attention, or whatever it is we’re trying to achieve. By breaking down what we do into this kind of granular level, it also gives us the opportunity to develop our sensibilities through deliberate practice.

Here’s an example of the kinds of levers a writer uses, courtesy of our own pet project, Writelike. This snapshot comes from a lesson on how J. K. Rowling uses sentence structure and word choice to guide the reader’s eye – from intimate to vast – and set the emotional tone.

writelike

When your automatic side gets you into a mess that doesn’t feel right, it’s understanding these levers that can help you get out of it. When it comes to reviewing work and providing guidance, it can mean the difference between going around in circles with a vague notion of “I’ll know it when I see it,” and being able to help break a problem down into tactical steps to narrow in on a solution.

So, how do we know what experience is valuable? One thing I learned from our time working with Queensland State Archives is that the value of an archived resource is only truly realised when it’s used. It’s hard to know exactly what ideas we’ll find useful in future, so the best thing we can do is to make sure they are readily accessible for when that time comes. I believe that it’s this conscious approach to understanding all the parts that make up our experience that keeps them accessible and useful.

Collaboration

The best way I’ve found to get this diversity of experience is through collaboration. Every job I’ve had is a massive opportunity to learn from so many other disciplines in coworkers and clients. It’s why I’ve come back to working in an agency. It’s intense work but you can’t beat it for the diversity of good problems to solve, and non-stop opportunities to learn. I get to work with people who think deeply about their work and care about their craft, and clients who come to us because they value that about us. When we dive deep into a project, our clients’ passion for their purpose rubs off on us.

The Museum of Brisbane is one of those passionate collaborators and the Brisbane Art Design festival is a manifestation of their passion for supporting and celebrating Brisbane’s cultural life. While the idea of a museum is often associated with being custodians of the past, it’s initiatives like BAD that demonstrate MoB’s desire to contribute to the conditions that ensure a thriving cultural future. For me, it was a great experience to explore these ideas through the CreativeMornings talk and to engage with other creators who came out with an early morning appetite for coffee and curiosity.

I got to experience the rest of the festival as an audience member and met so many inspiring creators. It feels like the BAD festival is just starting to scratch the surface of all the art and design talent within Brisbane, so I look forward to what could come in future years. While the festival is now over, the BAD exhibition is still on at MoB until the 11th of August. Check it out if you haven’t already, as it’s a great example of this spirit of collaboration between Brisbane creators. Likewise, if you’d like to collaborate with us we’re always keen to hear from you.

Sam Daley
Sam Daley Product Design Director