5 design keys (not four, not six)

18 September 2013

 combo lock

Design should be a mystery and it should not be a mystery. Can something be two competing and opposite ideas simultaneously? Is this some ancient Greek philosophical paradox? The creative process often feels this way and trying to explain it or teach it can be equally difficult.

 I have had many students or young designers contact me after reading my blog or coming across my work seeking help in how to be a better designer. Some would say travel the world and study the great works and the great designers. Not bad, but I say roll up your sleeves and work.

 Whatever your position is, it need not be that cryptic or mysterious. Design can’t be fully explained by rational methods or broken down into a mere recipe like process. Nevertheless, I believe it can be understood. Perhaps as we seek to explain it, we are actually explaining our process more than anything else (just wrote about this earlier this year). We tend to say out loud what we are thinking as we work though a design problem whether considering façade options for a trendy downtown fashion store or simply working out the plan with complex and precise elements or figuring out how to just keep the water out of the building.

With respect to how one can improve their PROCESS, these thoughts came to me after a week of talking to my students about design and working on a few design projects of my own. I tried to think about my process and what was going through my mind as I tried to solve some seemingly mundane, but important design issues and respond to my clients’ wishes, the budget, codes and inject something to elevate one’s life just a little.

Five things came to mind. I chose the number five not three (“…thou count to three, no more, no less. Three shall be the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shall be three. Four shalt thou not count, neither count thou two, excepting that thou then proceed to three. Five is right out…”). Oh, you get it, it seemed like a good number, not a holy number.

Dive into the unknown – When you sit down to work, you cannot possibly know the end from the beginning and come out with something worthy let alone inspirational. One must work through ideas, sketches, scribbling, writing, typing and the occasional cursing or crying seeking to find solutions that are worth considering. This is often a patient search through unknown territory. Don’t expect to see the end right away. Embrace it.

Accept initial failures – I’ve heard it said many times the first thing that hits the page stinks. So let’s just get it out-of-the-way. We used to say in college “there are no Mozarts in architecture.” No one just sits down and writes out a perfect symphony without many edits, changes, critiques and yes some alleged failures. To me the only failure is not trying.

Step away from time to time – The creative process is tiring and oftentimes our minds need a mental break in order to function well. My two magic ninja moves that get me through mental roadblocks are first, take a break and literally walk away from your work area. Other times I pull out a big Sharpie marker. Sometimes I need a break from the smell of the big Sharpie marker, but that’s something different and we don’t discuss that.

Don’t throw out the obvious – Despite the previous suggestion of the risk of searching through unfamiliar territory, occasionally good ideas come right away and are quite obvious and simple. Some pieces just want to go in certain places and design happens quite fluidly at times. When that happens, accept it and move on to something else.

Let it flow – Our creative minds cannot be turned on and off like a faucet or light switch. Design, creativity, problem solving, and other similar activities happen well without warning. When you’re working through ideas and the pieces are coming together, you cannot stop. Keep going until you reach a conclusion or a logical stopping point. This stopping point will never occur at 5:00 PM by the way. Ideas may come in the middle of the night (keep a note pad handy or you’ll never get back to sleep) or for me they tend to arrive either while I’m shaving or while I’m driving (both dangerous times). Regardless, I still believe design happens when you sit down, put your head down and work.

Design…creativity…work…simple right? What works for you?

lamp switch

photos are from linusb4 stock photo gallery on Stock.Xchng (used under the Standard Restrictions)

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2 Responses to “5 design keys (not four, not six)”

  1. Robert Ross Says:

    Sometimes a change of perspective is needed. I often see things differently when I’m presenting to the client. The only difference is the orientation of the paper! Turning the plan around can sometimes get you past the place where you got stuck!


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