Why creative people sometimes make no sense

Matthew Schuler has been browsing Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention—the result of over 30 years of research into creative people by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.—and has distilled many of the creative quirks cited into a short, but uncannily accurate post.

Matthew quotes nine apparent contradictions that creative people apparently exhibit; I must say that I identify with all of them—to a greater or lesser degree.

As I have been carrying out a UI/UX review of our product—which I designed a few years ago—I find #8 particularly apt at present.

Most creative people are very passionate about their work, but remain extremely objective about it as well. They are able to admit when something they have made is not very good.

Throughout my career—from my humble beginnings in print, pottery and sculpture, through graphics and print, right up to the applications that I currently design—I find that, from many hundreds (possibly thousands) of things that I have created, there are only a few that I am still really proud of.

Indeed, I find that I am, at best, luke-warm about the vast majority of the work that I do only a few months afterwards.

This is less true now than when I first started working in print design, back in 1997. In those days, I was creating posters for the student theatre: budget constraints meant that full colour work was simply not available. As such, I learned to leverage the power duotones and tritones. And, of course, I could really go to town with metallics, fluorescent and other specialist inks.

The world has moved on since then: printers are now set up to produce full colour work incredibly cheaply—and now it is all of those interesting spot inks that I can now longer afford to dabble with. And, of course, real metallics simply don’t exist on the web.

Some of my pieces, however, transcend the limitations of their production methods: and some of these I have loved for many years.

The best tribute that anyone ever paid me was that they had come to see an adaptation of Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean’s Mr Punch1 purely because he “loved the poster”.

Which leads me to draw your attention to #6 on Matthew Schuler’s list:

Most creative people are genuinely humble and display a strong sense of pride at the same time.


1It was through Mr Punch that I discovered the art of Dave McKean: the poster style was influenced heavily by McKean’s work, and he remains my favourite artist of all time.

Removing comps in web design

For a few years now, I have had the feeling that we are approaching web design in the wrong way. Many designers—and their clients—have made the transition from the medium of print, and transferred the design processes too.

In print, we were all used to producing proofs with millimetric—nay, pixel-perfect—precision because we had to: the high-resolution of print meant that that one pixel gap was obvious when the material came off the press.

But it made absolute sense to produce these proofs—or composites (“comps”)—because print is a fixed medium: what you see is, pretty much, what you get.

Building a nightmare that never stops

Hence the bane of the website builder’s job: a pixel-perfect Photoshop comp married—in Hell—with a customer who doesn’t understand that their website is never going to precisely match that beautiful image proof that they have signed off.

The web has always been a fundamentally fluid medium: in print, the amount of text was often governed by the size of the printed page—in web design, the very opposite is true.

And this point is compounded when designing for a content management system (CMS), where the designer could not—and should not—absolutely control how much text a user can insert.

The death of the static image comp in web design

As such, I really believe that we need to kill this idea of using static image comps in web design and, a few weeks ago, Brad Frost succinctly summed up why in a post entitled The Post-PSD Era

Throughout my career, I’ve watched immensely talented designers waste a shitload of time creating fully fleshed-out comps of what a website could look like. Pixels get pushed, details are sweated, pages are printed out, hung on walls, and presented to clients. Clients squawk their feedback, then designers act on it. They repeat this dance until everyone is content (or until nobody gives a shit anymore, which happens more often than you’d think).Only then do those pristine comps get handed (more like shoved) over to developers to build.

It’s an increasingly-pathetic process that makes less and less sense in this multi-device age.

As it happens, Brad wrote this post at roughly the same time as I was presenting a new design process to my fellow managers—and I found it when looking for some pithy comment with which to populate a slideshow presenting said process to the rest of the company.

Bringing it home

My company designs and implements websites on its own Content Management System (CMS). I have moved through different positions within the company over the last five years, but I was put in charge of the new Creative and User Experience Team in July.

In between delivering customer projects, I have been attempting to make our processes more efficient. It swiftly became obvious that there were a number of problems with the way in which we designed and build our websites and intranets.

Improving our process: driving efficiency

The first has been largely improved by the adoption of an increasingly robust CSS LESS framework.

The second, however, was more difficult to address—customers’ expectation that their websites would look precisely (yes, even in IE7) like the lovely images that they had signed off .

We were also duplicating work.

So, the first thing that we did was to push the responsibility for producing wireframes solely onto the Information Architects; wireframes were already an output of these workshops (driven largely by the Attention Mapping exercises), so duplicating this work seemed ridiculous.

Next, we created a selection of mood boards—with recognisable, non-techie names—which, combined with the wireframes, enabled our designers to get a very good idea of what the customers were aiming for.

Zombie comps that will not die

But, at the end, we were still producing fixed image comps that were taking too long to create and, importantly, amend. Customers were getting hung up on the positioning of elements when, in our CMS, you can place anything anywhere (just about).

So, in December, I my research turned up Samantha Warren’s styleti.es—a website dedicated to promoting the use of said Style Tiles.

Style Tiles are similar to the paint chips and fabric swatches an interior designer gets approval on before designing a room.
An interior designer doesn’t design three different rooms for a client at the first kick-off meeting, so why do Web designers design three different webpage mockups?

Style tiles are for when a moodboard is too vague and a comp is too literal. Style tiles establish a direct connection with actual interface elements without defining layout.

The sites and systems that we build are huge.

There is simply no way that we can proof up all of the pages that make up the tens of functional Modules that our customers may have bought.

Style Tiles and a way forward

As I saw it, Style Tiles—with a bit of modification—would enable our company to provide the important elements to our customers (the look of a menu system, how a Staff Directory entry might be displayed) without them getting hung up about where on the page these elements might appear.

After all, not only is the web a fluid medium but our CMS also gives the customer total control over their page structure.

With Style Tiles, clients could focus on the important details, rather than getting hung up on where those things appeared on a page. We would, in fact, be aligning our processes with the flexibility of our product and thus reinforcing its superiority.

There were, of course, other benefits, including being able to turn around work much more quickly and thus increase the productivity of the team.

It’s never enough…

But Style Tiles wouldn’t be enough—especially in the age of Responsive Design.

As such, we decided to build Live Prototypes alongside the Style Tiles. With our LESS framework (which has mobile @media break-points built in), and the CMS’s inbuilt styling options, this became a viable proposition.

The first run is scheduled for Tuesday morning: I’ll let you know how it goes…

Welcome to The Devil’s Repose

For nearly seven years, I wrote a political blog from a libertarian stand point. However, in early 2008, I was hired by a small software company based in Surrey, in England. Since this time, I have become more and more interested in the web, and its development—as such, I have laid down the stale and futile political mantle, in favour of writing about technology.

And so here we are…

A bit about me

I started my career designing posters for the Edinburgh University Theatre Company (traditionally known as Bedlam) and, from the winter of 1996 until the end of 2006, I designed hundreds of posters, flyers, programmes and leaflets. (I also variously lit, directed and produced over forty productions there.)

I had ostensibly been studying Microbiology at the University of Edinburgh but, swiftly realising that this consisted mainly of biochemistry (which I disliked), I dropped out at got a job as a Mac Operator in a small Edinburgh print-shop. Over the next eight years, I moved through a variety of similar jobs—each one having more of an emphasis on design (rather than processing the designs of others)—before moving to London (where, of course, the streets are paved with pure gold) in 2006.

During my last two jobs in Edinburgh, I had learned the art of website building and taught myself HTML and CSS. And so, in London, I set up as a freelancer and worked enough to ensure that I remained comfortable.

But being comfortable is rather dull, and before long I found myself craving company and people from whom to learn. And so, via a variety of coincidences, interviews and impulsive decisions, I ended up working for my current company—which builds and deploys websites and intranets on its own content management system (CMS).

Although hired as a second-string designer, my strong views and inability to keep my mouth shut has resulted in my being deployed through various parts of the business over the last few years: I have been a designer, a project manager, marketing manager, an information architect, product manager, UI/UX designer and creative manager.

About this blog

This blog aims to bring together many of the things that I have learned along the way, and to keep track of trends in current web development; from a coding point of view, I shall be focusing particularly on what is traditionally known as front-end development—and cutting-edge HTML5 and CSS3 techniques.

Many of the posts will simply be links to interesting articles and methods, but I shall also be undertaking longer posts about personal experiments and opinions. At some point, it is likely that others will join me.

I hope that you enjoy this little divertissement, and do feel free to comment and join the discussions…