Creative Resolutions

I keep a running list of books to read, and, as a fast reader, go through these lists quickly. And while I internalize a lot of the lovely bits of the things I read, sometimes with an especially wonderful book, I find myself wanting more - more engagement, or something tangible left behind. This was the case with The Creative Habit. I don't quite remember how this book made it on to my list (note to future self, keep track of that from now on), but I ended up buying an electronic copy for my Kindle and nearly devouring it before I realized I absolutely needed a physical copy of this book. I got one, started reading it over, and now it's covered in highlights. My point? Go out. Get this book. Do it now. I can't imagine a person in any profession that wouldn't find inspiration in this book. As a user experience designer, I sometimes wonder where creativity fits into my design practice. I don't often get to choose my projects. I don't usually get to propose wild, crazy, way-out-there-flying-toaster solutions. As others have noted before, design creativity is frequently the quieter kind that comes from navigating many constraints. Even then, that's a creativity that needs to be exercised to stay sharp. Here are some things I took from The Creative Habit that I'm going to bring to my practice as a professional designer. It's New Year's Eve in August, and these are my resolutions:

1. Develop your perspective

Tharp stresses the importance of having a point of view on your work, knowing what that point of view is, and consciously developing it. An exercise Tharp suggests is to sit down and watch a couple. Write down the first 20 things they do. Do it again, but this time, write down the first 20 things that are interesting to you. This takes a lot longer and gives you insight into what your perspective is. I think this can be done with designs as well. I keep a collection of imagery I find interesting or inspirational, but I rarely go back through and review it for what exactly is speaking to me or what the themes are that may tie them together. It's time to start.

This kind of exercise can also help you determine your personal "focal length" – small, medium, or large distance. People have a tendency to prefer one of these modes and work best in it. As a designer, it's helpful to know what your preferred length is, and make sure you stretch into the other perspectives as you design.

2. Be aware of your spine

A spine is the core of your work. In making art, the spine is the central idea the artist is trying to express. In design, this can be new idea you are experimenting with to solve a problem. For example, you may have an idea to design your application in such a way that it makes people feel good about how they are doing their work. Can you evaluate every page, every interaction to see that this spine is strong? Perhaps this just another way of expressing the idea of design principles. But note, this is design principles much less in the vein of "be simple" and much more in the vein of this excellent piece by Mark Boulton on design principles for their CERN project. I can't say enough about how awesome this article is.

Rachel Hinman talks of the importance of mobile applications or interfaces to "speak their power." That is, for them to be so intuitive that it is instantly clear what they are designed to do and how you should interact with them, like a light switch or a shopping cart. I think the idea of spine is important in achieving this clarity of purpose. The shopping cart and light switch each have a strong spine.

I want to make a conscious effort to make sure I can identify the spine of work – before, during, and after executing on it. If I can't identify a spine, then I think I need to dig deeper, ask more and better questions.

3. Ideas are work

Ideas are everywhere, but you have to be dedicated and persistent about tracking them down.  Tharp writes that ideas can come from many places: reading, conversations, others' work, or nature. Stuck? Go on a field trip (with a plan) and collect ideas. She calls this "scratching." She calls on us to scratch in the best places and use the best material to improve the quality of our ideas. Go to the masters, explore history. I love this call to action. I need to get back to reading through Megg's History of Graphic Design and Designing Interactions (they've become lovely doorstops. Shame on me!) Karen McGrane has done a comprehensive and awesome review of Interaction Design history. I want to get out more and design in the field and be prepared to accept and record ideas when I do so. I want to be more comfortable dedicating some time each day to generating new ideas.

4. Be organized

Once you've started collecting, be organized. Tharp keeps a box for every project, and in it she places every item of inspiration or research she collects for the duration of the project. These collections create a soil from which ideas grow. Stay organized, and evaluate your ideas after you generate them. Put little ideas together so big ideas can form. And you can't just sit there and think and think in front of your notebooks. Be physical in ideation – make 60 sketches and keep one. Track these ideas so you can evolve on them over time.

I keep Evernote notebooks full of screenshots and sketchbooks and scraps of paper with thoughts all over the house, but I hadn't thought much about imposing a structure on these things. I can see the value in that now. I've started keeping separate notebooks for my different projects and it's valuable to be able to flip through, review the progression and re-mix old concepts. It helps to get into the headspace of just that one project (or aspect of a project) and focus on it.

5. Practice

Although this was a book about creativity, Tharp tells us to put craft before creativity. Skill is what lets you execute what you see in your mind. Practice. In fact, practice perfectly. Practice the fundamentals, practice what you aren't good at. Practice by apprenticing yourself to the masters of your craft. Copying (over and over and over) the work of those you admire enables you to internalize their structures and point of view. You can take them on as mentors.

The main takeaway of this book for me was that creating is work (hard work) that takes discipline and habit. This discipline, habit, hard work and planning will give you confidence to execute and believe in your creations. I'm going to create a daily habit of practice in my work. I remember a time when I was practicing making buttons (yes, boring website buttons), a couple a day, for about two weeks. It was zen.

Some practice-related inspiration