A couple of weeks ago Maykel Loomans made some tweets that have had me thinking and doing a lot of self reflection since.
I am starting to feel there are two types of designers: (1) designers who deeply analyse, and (2) designers who break apart and build.— Maykel Loomans (@miekd) January 15, 2014
Another way to slice them: (1) designers with a systematic methodical approach, and (2) designers who go far and wide in explorations. — Maykel Loomans (@miekd) January 15, 2014
While many will probably know both, one of those traits is prevalent in their daily life … — Maykel Loomans (@miekd) January 15, 2014
… and it’s absolutely glorious to work with a designer who approaches things from the other side.— Maykel Loomans (@miekd) January 15, 2014
I am not creative. I have been called a creative more times than I can count over the last 7 or so years. I have often lied to myself and said that I am. What weighs on me more are the many times I have agreed with others that I am. I’ve often wondered how I have come so far in a career as a designer without really being creative. I suppose mostly I feel that faking it will carry me pretty far, and so far it has. I’ve definitely traveled far in a creative field without very much creativity. It’s something I have wished for, envied, and tried to obtain. Regardless of my efforts I remain devoid of the creative thinking I see in so many of my colleagues or those that I draw inspiration from. Many days I feel like a hack, a kind of vampire, just picking things I enjoy and emulating them. I pull from the creativity of others to inform my decisions, not contributing in any way. My sense of creativity is like a huge cloud. It’s edges are soft and it’s contents are thoroughly mixed until I have no real inclination of where any of it came from. I just pull from my cloud and quilt together a collection of ideas that can’t really be considered my own.
I’m sure many creatives have their own clouds, their own wells of inspiration they use to shape and form their own creative ideas. My struggle is I have always lacked the ability to be more abstract in my implementation. I look at so many artists and creative thinkers who dream up interesting characters, or view our world with a lens I can’t begin to understand, and feel a tinge of jealousy. How do their brains work? Where does their ability to take reality and bend it to their whim come from? What am I overlooking that more creative thinkers pick up on so quickly and repurpose in such unimaginable ways? What makes their thought process so different from mine? Why am I doomed to be so analytical, so grounded in realism that I am incapable of escaping its grasp for just a moment to create something truly unique?
Creativity is perhaps a spectrum, and perhaps I might be comparing my complete life achievements to so many highlight reels. Regardless I feel a great disconnect between what I want to be creatively and what I am creatively. Thus far I have been able to use my analytical nature to appear creative. In school, where I studied 3D animation and related materials, I preferred to emulate. I focused my time on recreating realistic lighting, textures, and objects. But emulating reality doesn’t much require creativity, as much as it does carful study. Often I would emulate less realistic things, but these things were characters or objects some other creative had already dreamed up, it was just my goal to execute them in a new medium. In my career as a designer I often times just regurgitated bits and pieces of others creativity into what could be perceived as a new thing. I made a parallax scrolling blog post way back before the ubiquity of parallax effect on the web, I even implemented differently from Nike, but the concept wasn’t my own. I sometimes wonder if my ability to execute technical things is just the ability I am saddled with and I simply wish for a different one. Is creativity a process that can be learned?
I try to branch out to other outlets for creativity. Photography, painting, and surprisingly dance are all things that I have tried to apply creative thinking to, yet continually fall into the same pattern of collecting and reapplying. I’ve learned to embrace my lack of unrestrained thinking. I have even learned to enjoy applying a technical and analytical approach to my work and other pursuits. For my lack of creativity it appears that I have been wired to focus on details, to deconstruct everything I see, and to relentlessly pursue improvement. To be fair I don’t think those are traits that many creatives lack, however it is the method in which I apply those traits that makes me different. I am incapable of disconnecting those traits from my less imaginative processes. At nearly 30 years of self discovery and growth I am just now really coming to accept I may not really be as creative as I hoped, or even as others may perceive me. Conversely I may just be more creative than I have understood. I’ve spent so much time wishing for some ideal model of creative thinking I had overlooked my own personal creative developments.
I am learning to understand that creative fields need all kinds of thinkers. I love working with the creatives whom I have often wished I could share their brilliant abstracted thoughts. My own creative inclinations may not be my ideal but I am not without creative ability. While I may not be inventing some radical new user interface, or the next app that changes the world, I can apply my own process to refining those ideas. I may not be the painter or the sculptor, or the inventor of the next app UI that sets the bar, but maybe I can be the guy who digs into his cloud and thinks of something you’ve never seen before.
The phrase ‘surprise and delight’ is often tossed around the design industry. Its origins coming from the customer service world. Originally coined by Starbucks, it’s popularized by many industries hoping to inspire their teams and cash in on the buzz it creates. The mantra itself is great, but more recently in the design community it has become synonymous with superflous animations and over the top visual detail. ‘Surprise and delight’ have jumped the tracks.
Once a reminder to focus on going the extra mile by understanding your customer, the phrase has become a call for elaborate interaction and ornate detail. While fanciful animation and intricate details can indeed be surprising and delightful, increasingly it has become distraction. Or worse, a primary focus while usability suffers. Our goal as designers is to amplify the signal while supressing the noise. How can we focus on providing a high quality experience while still delivering surprise and delight?
There are so many apps and experiences in the marketplace today with amazing interface design, and thoughtful interactions. It’s no wonder so many teams are focused on surprise and delight. It can be tough to stand out in the sea of quality. Delivering the goods and going the extra mile for users is more difficult than it used to be.
It’s important to understand your users. Identify what things they desire, and aim to build a solid foundation. Focus intensely on delivering an experience that satisfies your users. Make the interface easy to understand: simplicity is the core of delight. Focus on the details that help users to get things done as simply and quickly as possible. Users can often be so frustrated by overcomplicated interactions that they abandon ship before they’ve had the chance to be surprised or delighted.
By starting with a foundation that emphasizes straightforward interface design, consistent interactions, and an intense user focus, they are delighted by a high quality experience. Starting with this user centric approach you really begin to understand what things they want and may be looking for. To truly surprise them, you have to present them with something they don’t expect. Make it something functional, make it desirable, make it something they won’t be bored of after the first interaction. Surprise should be infrequent, or executed in a way that becomes delight after the initial use. If it’s an animation everytime they use the menu,it must be executed perfectly, so it transitions to delight.
Surprise and delight are simple to achieve. Focus on the user, present them with the clearest interface and interactions, and give them useful and unexpected depth. When a user feels like you truly understand them, that your experience was designed for them, they are in the truest sense delighted. Layer in valuable surprise and memorable experiences begin to take shape.