The Objectiveness of Design, Part 2In my last post, I left off having to fill the shoes of both designer and client as I worked on a new Coalescent Design identity and website. This raised the dilemma of maintaining a well-balanced approach to the objective and subjective sides of designing my new site which respected both the project goals and my audience while staying true to who I am as a designer.
In striving to keep a handle on both these sides of design, I fell back on a practice that I feel has kept me in good stead over the years across different disciplines. That practice is the simple concept of "time and space".
Doesn't sound simple? Well, it really is – at least in theory.
Over the years, I've strived to try and be true to the things I value in my design and painting – things that make my work uniquely "mine" (otherwise, why hire me over any other designer?). At the same time, I've always striven to try to see my work clearly from other perspectives – to see it with "fresh eyes" so that I can weigh it's potential success against other criteria.
In the case of web design, that criteria invariably includes another audience who brings their own unique subjectiveness to everything they look at. In order to even begin to find ways to understand and appeal to some common ground of that particular audience, it becomes critical to be able to view your work without your own biases colouring it.
Over the years, I've found the most effective road to be one that allows for the "time and space" to step away from work in progress. To leave it be and walk away from it and it's concerns for some period of time.
I can't recall how this started. To some degree, I think it's a fairly natural thing to do. When someone has a problem of some sort, I think for a lot of people, there is an inclination to leave the problem alone for a bit and come back to it later hoping for a fresh perspective.
For me, this approach has always been the most effective. I'll work on something until such a point where I feel there are diminishing returns on my effort, or I feel I've come up against a problem I can't solve – or I've come to a point where what I'm working on isn't addressing my original goal. At that point, I put down the mouse or pencil and walk away.
Sometimes, I'll come back to it only a couple hours later, sometimes in a few days with work on other projects in between. In either case, when I choose to revisit the work, I make a truly conscious effort to "see" it again as if I've never seen it before. That first moment is as close as I can get to seeing the work for the first time as a potential customer or user will see it. In those precious first moments or minutes, I try to mentally take note of how I'm reading and processing the information. What things that I thought were clear, really aren't? What items that previously seemed to be successful and pointing in the right direction, are actually getting in the way of what I'm trying to achieve?
Those are precious and important discoveries. Now, there is no denying that those kind of enlightenments can take place with user groups, feedback from other team members and even casual conversations with colleagues outside of the project. However, as a designer, I think striving to always see your work unencumbered from personal biases is a critical facility to be honed and developed. The better those sense are, hopefully the fewer wrong steps and decisions will be made on the road to a final product.
When I was working on my own site, this became much more difficult to do. First, I didn't have access to as large an external audience for testing and feedback which meant I had to rely on myself even more. In that case, I found the "time and space" method became more valuable. I allowed myself (or was forced to due to other paying work) more time and space to judge iterations during the design process.
The first fully formed mocks for the site came into being almost 12 months ago and those sat for many weeks while I was busy with other projects. When I came back to those with very fresh eyes, I realized the direction was very wrong. I had become enamoured with one central element to the design and allowed it to dictate too fully to other areas of the site.
It was back to the drawing board with some valuable lessons learned; then came a second set of versions which again sat for a while. Back to them some weeks later and again, with those fresh eyes I realized that some aesthetic decisions I had made might be problematic functionally down the road for certain types of content I might need to add to the site. Problems fixed and I'm finally ready to start production.
Another forced delay shortly after production due to other projects and a couple weeks later I'm again ready to return to finishing the site. While going to open up one of my Photoshop templates, I accidentally open up a related – but previously discarded mockup – and look at it for the "first time" again. I have an "ah-ha" moment as I see some strong merits to an alternate treatment of the site footer. This results in one last significant tweak to the site as I finish the project.
Now, it's fair to say the timeline on our new site allowed for an extreme scenario when it comes to allowing "time and space" to play it's role. However, for me personally, the key is having found a method which I feel I have been able to employ successfully over the years for maintaining a balanced and effective relationship between objectiveness and subjectiveness. I think it's important for designers to keep this relationship as one their conscious concerns when designing. To not become lazy and just trust on a subconscious level that all will be ok – and that feeling good will never override appropriateness.