DA DA DA DA SPLAT!
I recently visited an interaction design agency’s website. The navigation and links were riddled with CSS transitions and transformations. Ok, you’re an interaction design studio, I get it. However, it felt like their intentions were misguided. They weren’t designing “innovative” interactions, they were designing feedback mechanisms. Interaction often gets mistaken for feedback, which is only an aspect of interaction. When a designer gets wrapped up in feedback without thinking of interaction from a systems perspective, they are doing nothing more than making flashy hover states. But most importantly…think of the poor lte IE 9 users!
Most designers go through some form of fundamentals course in their design careers. This is a time we all fondly look back on, when we learned the basics of form, colour, and typography. The projects were typically analog creations with restrictions on computer use. These were great fundamental skills to develop, but it took me years to actually discover the value of pencil, ink, and paper. Don’t get me wrong, when I started my journey in design I was no Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator pro. I actually despised the programs for all their features. However, whenever I got a design brief in school I’d sketch a few doodles, tell myself I engaged in a process, then open up Illustrator or Photoshop. My work however, suffered, I could feel it but I didn’t know why. In my first year of design I remember another student telling me “It looks like it was done on a computer”. That odd yet powerful comment has stuck with, and has pushed me to explore and reflect on my design process.
So what does this have to do with constraint? Everything. The problem with the computer is that it has none. You can create anything you can dream of on a computer. There are no bounds to what you can make given the right program and talent, and herein lays the problem. Looking back on my fundamentals education we worked with our hands, with paper and pencils, ink, plaka, and exacto knives, but we didn’t learn the process of design or more importantly the actual process of working with our hands to sketch. This is why that comment from another student felt so true, I didn’t know how to properly sketch, research, iterate and refine my ideas without a computer. I would go through a facsimile of a process just to show my professor “Look, process!” (sometimes put together the night before the project was due).
It’s not until I left design school and started working in web design and ux that I finally understood the value of paper. But I’ve discovered it’s not just drawing, it’s drawing with constraint. Each iteration of the process requires you to remove more and more constraints to achieve higher and higher fidelity. Without these constraints it’s too easy to jump straight into Photoshop and deliver a pixel perfect mockup.
Constraints not only keep you in check during the process, they can also enhance creativity by providing boundaries. Two of my least favorite things are a blank piece of paper and the phrase “Do want you want”. This might sound like a dream to some people, but myself like most designers need boundaries to constrain an infinite number of ideas.
I apply constraints in different ways as I work through my process. I’ll start out sketching in small browser windows with a really THICK pencil. There’s no way I can achieve any detail at this stage even if I tried. I’m only trying to explore general forms at this point. From there I’ll move onto a full sheet of paper with a browser image. I might further use the thick pencil but use a ruler to start making straighter lines. My pencil will eventually get finer and my lines straighter. Even at this stage the amount of detail you can add is limited. It’s not just about the pencil and ruler though. The browser images keep my sketches contained and contextual. The dotted lines in my sketchbook provide structure and support. From there I’ll move my work onto a computer to make a black and white or gray scale wire frame. etc. You get the picture of how this is progressing.
The most important thing in all of this is to use the right tools at the right stage to constrain your process. So slow down, step away from Photoshop and grab some pencil and paper. You’ll be happy that you did.