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The Proof is in the Process

How Magazine - 2003 - by George Shaw

A teacher once told me, "Anyone can be creative on their best day. If you want to make a living at this stuff (graphic design), you've got to be creative on the days when your car breaks down and your wife leaves you." I thought he was trying to get me to listen to country music, but eventually, I figured out what he was talking about.

Having a creative job has its ups and downs. When you're able to patiently nurture your creativity with mood lighting and inspirational trinkets, taking all the time you need to carefully refine your ideas before presenting them to your client, you should consider yourself very lucky. But when it's 3 a.m. and you need to finish a set of comps before the start of business in six hours and the only ideas you're having are colorful excuses to explain your total lack of creative thought, the frustration can bring you to your knees. These are the times when having a concise, clear creative process will save you, allowing hard work, experience and intelligence to get you through the job.

The Need for a Process

You probably already have a process you follow when creating any new design from scratch; you may have just never "formalized" that process or thought about it in a lot of detail. By picking apart the way you already do things, possibly modifying your technique a little, and creating a repeatable plan for the generation and execution of new ideas, you'll improve your consistency, your ability to plan and time your work, and perhaps even raise the quality of your best work. You'll ensure that your work is not only artistically great, but commercially viable as well, communicating more effectively and in a more sophisticated manner. By focusing on your process, you'll have a chance to analyze what works, what doesn't work and what you should emphasize in order to get the most from the good ol' right brain.

For the purpose of this discussion, we'll assume that we're talking about the initial phase of a design project, the production of comps. This phase is often where the groundwork is laid for the rest of the work to follow; where style, colors, graphic systems, information architecture, and details of execution and production are either planned or considered in detail. In large-scale Web projects, there might be thousands of pages that follow directly from this early moment of creation. In identity design, a client's outward appearance might be affected for years by the work a designer does at this initial stage. The design of a printed piece with many pages is often largely based on the structure and style established in the comps. Yes, comps are quite important!

What is a Process?

Your creative process is a series of steps that you repeat every time you need to create. Simple. The trick is to make the steps fluid and flexible enough to allow you the room you need to create well, while still being structured enough to help you through when you're having a hard time. An effective process should allow for serendipity—happy accidents are responsible for lots of great design (probably more than anyone cares to admit). A good process should also have room for moments of creativity—flashes of brilliance—mingled with long bouts of mental chaff.

Your own process might be a very rigid step-by-step approach, or it might be a loose progression of stages you go through, or it could be anything in between. Your process might take, or it might take just a few minutes right before a flurry of creative energy. These factors will depend, of course, on personal taste and habits, the requirements of the particular job at hand and the medium in which you're working.

Developing Your Own Process

In order to begin thinking about what kind of process you might follow, it's important to really examine what it is that you do, or at least what it is that you're expected to do on a particular job. Were you hired primarily as a "visionary" who the client is expecting to reel in come production time? Or, on the other end of the spectrum, are you more of a craftsman, hired to build something conservative and simple, but to build it really well? These two extremes, and everything in between, have different creative needs and therefore different creative approaches.

A good process will allow you enough flexibility to work with varying levels of creative freedom and varying expectations of "creative muscle". You should also be able to modify your approach slightly to function in almost any medium, with almost any style, and within a myriad of other constraints that might be placed upon you. By focusing on one aspect or another of your process, from research to planning to execution, you can guide your own thinking toward your creative goals without having to significantly modify your overall approach.

When thinking about how to develop a process that will work for you, it's also a good idea to think about how you're most comfortable working and how things tend to happen when you're really clicking. Think back to your best moments—what form did inspiration take? Different people are triggered creatively in different ways, and it's important to know the types of things that set your own mind in motion so that you can structure your process around those things.

Whatever process you follow is a very personal choice. In thinking about and developing your process, you need to take an honest assessment of who you are, what you do, what you're good at and what you're not, and what you hope to achieve in your work.

How Magazine - 2003 - by George Shaw





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