When we were learning as children, we always asked important questions. More often than not the main question was, Why? We as adults joke about children getting to that age and how they continue to ask why after the 2nd and 3rd time.
Each time a child asks why and receives an answer it generally asks it again and again and each time we have to get more specific with our answer or at least make it a little more descriptive to provide more context. Sometimes we run out of answers on the 9th time but we try our best.
Surely at such an early age, children cannot treat the first answer we give them as the only answer they’d receive. Do they think we’re joking with our first answer? Probably not. Once we start answering the same question a 2nd and 3rd time the child knows we can go as far as that. Each time we make our answers longer and eventually the child will get as much context and description as they’d ever get and understand ‘why’ better than they ever could.
I’ve never stopped asking why nor I ever will. This is both a good and bad thing. To a point it’s like a slight OCD, I have to understand the why. If I can’t fathom the why, I become easily frustrated or put up barriers to the information I’m hearing. If I don’t understand something, I’ll keep asking why until I do understand as each time I ask there will be more within an answer. Understanding the why is a little easier out of conversations than in them, I can research and read my way to an answer with more context. In discussion, the people I am talking to can unfortunately become frustrated with the amount of information I require without me explaining my questioning in the first place but I feel they still need to be asked.
The reasons why should ALWAYS be known.
I often bring this in to my work as I expect rather than assume that people other than myself would like to know the reason why they should either do something or use something before doing it. This information should be available to read or see at the lowest barrier of entry, it should be a gate that can be pushed open rather than the need for a key to unlock. By that I mean that a user should not have to think about the why and should move instantly to visualising themselves doing the action.
A little while ago I wrote an article about ‘a better web design process‘, I discussed the evolving nature of the design process from old to new and the benefits of each progression. One of the largest parts of my design process which I have added to and extended is the sketching phase. This phase includes other areas which I will detail and explain below.
I used to stay away from sketching, I guess I was a little stubborn thinking I could do everything off the top of my head. I think the stubbornness was one of the largest contributors to me nearly losing my mind on numerous occasions. There were two ways I started a new project,
I used to work by inspiration, waiting for that great idea and quickly jump in to Photoshop.
Go straight in to Photoshop and start moving around elements of the design.
I can tell you now I was going about this all wrong.
Sketching is a lot more than just putting pencil to paper. It’s about understanding, thinking, planning and iteration. As part of the design process sketching is a hugely under-rated step.
The more you understand the project you’re working on, the easier the sketches happen. Whilst you sketch you notice things that you probably wouldn’t have if you’d gone straight into Photoshop/Fireworks or the browser. It helps you understand the context of the content you’re working with and help you put everything in order. Designers are a unique in that we deal with elements of design and understand how they’re supposed to be used, sketching helps us justify our decisions for dealing with things people feel and sometimes don’t see.
Granted we can think about design whilst we’re using our tool of choice, but often we get caught up in what we’re doing and charge ahead for that aesthetic look instead of keeping our minds on the on the real goal which is the core of the design. Sometimes we set ourselves up for a fall by thinking to literally instead of figuratively. Yes there are rules, or guidelines which can be followed but there’s no reason why we can’t let each design have its own unique twist, with sketching we can let our minds wander down other routes as our sketching doesn’t have any rules and we can have as many scribbles, crosses or arrows as we like.
The execution of your design comes down to planning, we’re happy to enough to sketch out a room in the house when we’re looking to convert it into an office. We do this because it’s a clean slate and we have the option to do anything we like, the same as our designs. Sketching doesn’t just help us plan our designs but we can manage the hierarchy, structure and interactions between every element or link.
It’s all well and good doing one sketch to map out what we have in our head but a lot of the time that won’t take everything in to account. If we iterate our design in the sketching phase, it can reduce the amount of time in Photoshop and even when the site goes live. Granted we need to user test the design, but putting that extra thought in to it before hand could and should reduce the amount of time spent after wards.
Sketching doesn’t have to be perfect and you most certainly don’t need to be an artist. We’re talking about squares, rectangles, circles and crosses. This is how I work. I attribute shapes which make sense to me that I can understand when I look back on them.
The amount of sketching I do varies on what project I’m working on. I have multiple sketch books ranging from A5 to A2 in size and I work in them all. I prefer to work out of my A2 sketch book when I’m at my desk as I can iterate five or six times before needing to turn the page. I probably sketch each section of a design once or twice and there could be up to 2 or 3 iterations of those. I’m currently working on a rather largeproject where I have covered 16 or so A2 pages front and back and those sketches aren’t refined, I generally sit with my A4 sketchbook when I’m in Photoshop to refine a sketch down in more detail.
The amount of time on the actual sketch is usually minimal, its the thinking time which should be higher. That time should include planning and iteration and generally keeping your mind free before settling down on the aesthetics. If you move into Photoshop and then ditch one of your sketches, quickly re-sketch what you’re thinking and see if this takes you down a different avenue. You never know where it will end up unless you make that effort.
So there’s why I think sketching is so important and a little bit of insight into how I work.
Moving on from ‘Simplifying your design‘, I think it is also important to remember something very important when designing. We need to think of the content first and treat it as the core of the design itself and create elements around it. It is very easy to get caught up in adding what can be described as ‘noise’ when most of it can be left out.
More so, when you are adding elements in to the design give them room to breathe. There is nothing worse than looking at information on the screen without being able to take it all in correctly. Elements which are too close together or the same size when one should be smaller than the other can become annoyingly awkward to interpret.
Using a grid system, can but not always help with this problem as even with the best grid systems out there, the gutters are still frustratingly thin so take them as guidance at best, if an element looks like it needs more room around it then it probably does.
It’s easy to pump an idea full of features when designing. A set of stages where you think to yourself “Oh that would be great!”, “We’ll need this…” when in actual fact you won’t. Next time, sit back and ask yourself to simplify it. Then simplify it again. You’ll find doing that will increase the experience for the user as well as pulling unneccesary bloat from your design, whatever that might be.
With all the good intentions in the world, you’re setting yourself up for a big fall if you think that thing you’re in the middle of designing is ever going to be complete.
A big shift.
Don’t get me wrong I’ve been in the same position, in the early days. Way back when we were designing static websites with just a few pages it was quite easy to work through the process of designing and building. Over the course of a year we might only have to add one or two things but probably nothing which would change the physical design of the templates we had already constructed.
We as designers no longer design websites. FACT. Whenever someone asks what I do, I generally say that I produce the DIBI Conference because avoiding answering the long drawn out answer for what I ‘really’ do is just easier. Answering ‘I design stuff’ just doesn’t cut it anymore and if the person you’re talking to is non-design and non-technical they look at your completely blank anyway. Websites are old news, they’re the 5 pager you designed for your local cleaning service. Due to the huge array of content creation systems like WordPress / ExpressionEngine / Joomla, we as designers could in essence create some templates and then let the user develop the content. That is all well and good if creating content is just what your client wants.
A website is no longer a website. It’s a business, I’d go as far as saying that 90% of websites are predominantly the main money earner in most businesses. Whether that be direct revenue like advertising, product buying or the lead in for a sale. Within every business things change, and when things change adjustments have to be made. Designers need to listen, look, analyze and improve our designs on a constant basis. Just because things might work for the first few weeks after a design has launched doesn’t mean it will in a few months.
Iteration, Iteration, Iteration…
We don’t plan, sketch, wire-frame, structure and architect for nothing. We need to listen first and act, if something needs to scale, it needs to scale! If it’s going to scale then you had better get it in your head that the design will change over due course. Iteration is key, if you’re designing and building something, get it out of the door early and sit back and watch. Analyze how users are using it, what can be made better and just because it is live don’t ever think that its done and dusted.
Tell your clients…
Clients tend to think that once they have their ‘website’, web app or system that everything is finished. They find it hard to understand that just because it is live it’s not actually finished. I’ve tried to explain this multiple times and have ended up with that cold blank stare. I’ve since figured out a much easier way to discuss why the design and development of a system is never complete and this is what I say.
You buy a brand new house, it’s very big and strong. It’s made of bricks, has a sturdy waterproof roof and you’re all ready for moving in. The removal men help you move in putting all of your worldly belongings in the right place. Two weeks later you notice some cracks appearing around the door and window frames. Not because the house is breaking, but its settling in to its foundations. Nine out of ten times these little cracks just need filled over. Over more time you’ll realise that you need a lampshade, carpets and a new colorful wall in the entrance area to the house. Your house is never finished, in the same way as your new system will never be finished.
Your design will never be complete because it was never meant to be in the first place. It can only ever be great as perfect is only ever in the future and you’re not there yet.