When I moved to London the first job I had was working at an advertising production house where I briefly got seconded to a big ad agency, sent to support some last minute client requests (are there any other kind in the ad world?). The experience confirmed for me two things; that advertising is not the industry for me, and that so-called “creatives” are the laziest people in existence.
Obviously this is pretty sweepingly unfair and the role of art director is hugely challenging and complicated, but in that moment, receiving a scrawled drawing on the back of a notepad, without even the right copy, and told to “just mock this up” as if embedded Facebook apps were as easy as opening up Photoshop, by someone who even a wet-behind-the-ears naive young designer could see was more haircut than man, I saw it as frankly fucking lazy.
Lazy to pass off a weak idea, literally sketched out, to someone else to turn the thinking into reality and lazy to gloss over how much more thinking was still needed to get there. If someone couldn’t be bothered to go beyond even a single page of an idea then why should it fall to me to stay up all night visualising it? I could see then that the achievement was not in the original flash of inspiration but in the determination to follow an idea through.
The point of this nostalgic ramble is not to criticise those who work as ‘ideas’ people in advertising corporations (I have huge respect for Ogilvy, Hegarty etc.) but to think about parallels with working in the product design industry.
5% inspiration, 95% perspiration
Ideas are easy, I think many people have lists of ‘good ideas’ all of which have the potential to Change The World. But, as many have noted, it’s one thing to have an idea but a huge leap to turn that idea into a thing. As my Dad would say it’s “5% inspiration 95% perspiration”.
It’s also getting easier and easier to make a digital product, there are so many services out there to build and launch a product. But I think that while it’s easy to make a thing, it’s much, much harder to make a thing that lasts. All the multi-billion dollar success stories make it look like anyone can do it (and they can!). The risk is that even as design is more valued now in tech than ever before, it’s still often seen as magic – even worse the purview of elite designers only – something that gets brushed on to the top of the idea like a coat of paint.
Today’s digital landscape is characterised by a never-ending range of device types, with many screen sizes and resolutions each running different web browsers which each have their own varying standards. This is such a massive, almost hidden, checklist, that can be easily overlooked when planning or selling a project, an oversight a dev friend of mine glibly refers to as “Save as website”.
(UI) Design is really hard
Which means that being a digital designer today is really, really hard. Not to say that it’s harder than brain surgery or off-shore trawling but it’s fast-paced, complicated and stressful. And it’s easy to fall into routine – use stock icon fonts, bootstraps, short-cuts to get the job done as quickly as possible. This might feel necessary when timelines are short (they’re always short) and no-one seems to care about the quality just as long as it launches (they do care really), but this is lazy. Just like the soul-crushed advertising creative, a copy-paste UI job is lazy and disservice to the idea, whether you think your work is valued or not.
Digital style guides, at the level of Google’s Material design, are for me the most tangible expression of the amount of design work that a really in-depth product requires. And this takes a lot of time and discipline to make, with the temptation at every step to half-arse it or cut corners.
Partly it comes down to pride, we want to put our name to quality work not part-baked potentials, and I think it’s also partly down to a desire to keep raising the profile of design-as-valuable (I’m not going to say “craft”) even as Squarespace and The Grid commoditise and automate designer’s roles.
Stay creative not lazy.