Whenever I worked on design projects, I always used to get stuck. I’d become nervous, vulnerable, and incapable, questioning the project, comparing my work to others, and beating myself up. I’d do what a lot of fresh out of school designers would do, which was something that we were taught. In art school, I remember being told that to become a better artist and designer, my peers and I should try to emulate the greats, so we could learn their process and see a piece through the artist’s eye. There was a promise of being able to get back on track after that. As an UI Design Instructor at The Iron Yard for the past year, and as a university lecturer for the previous six years, I’ve uttered the exact same advice I received in school—except now, students are emulating Codepens and tracing over icons and illustrations on Dribble, and then getting back on track.
I uttered the same words, because in a way, I believe it’s true. I think we can learn a lot about process by learning from others, and finding out what works for us, and have a better understanding of our process. I’ve looked at Dribbble, design award sites, and other inspirational design resources. But in the past two years, I’ve realized that looking at other design only takes me so far. Things start to look the same, and I don’t feel as connected with them. I’ve also realized that when I get to that level of stuck, I’ve been subconsciously distracting myself with one of two other things: cooking and music.
I used to hate cooking, and now it’s something I love to do. From my friends’ MAD MENu watch party theme nights, to Caribbean dinner parties (when I’m homesick for Curaçao), to ramen nights for my design friends where they assemble their toppings, a lot of my creative process goes into that. I start with plain, unseasoned ingredients and work with them in different ways to get the flavors I want. Trying a new oil (coconut is wonderful!) or investing in a better pan has allowed me to experiment more, and usually with a delicious result. Some recipes take longer, and simmer for hours before I can serve a pork belly ramen broth with instant noodles (they hold the broth, well). In the kitchen I’ve become a lot less fearless, a bit more trusting of my five senses, and stopped trying to follow a recipe down to the exact measurements. If a lamb curry smells like my mom and dad’s kitchen, I know it’s right. I’ve started taking this approach with design, trusting my senses, and I’ve found myself less stuck. Part of it is also taking a break from design. A lot of design problems just need time to marinate and sort themselves out in our mind. And then, like any food enthusiast, I take photos and painstakingly edit them on my phone and post them somewhere. Hey, food pics are just a modern day still life. No one yelled at the greats for ‘ugh, making another cornucopia’.
With music, it’s a bit different, and its fairly new. I’ve always loved most types of music (yes, even electronic music from my Dutch island upbringing), and I’ve always been a not so great musician, a decent singer, or a dancer since I was young. I have three students right now who are musicians outside of their code school lives. We’ve spent days talking about design, and I always try to relate design to other areas outside of it. My students have helped me realize something else: design is a lot like music. If we think of mastering and editing, there are different tracks that are recorded on their own, and then brought together and adjusted to all work together. To me, that sounds a lot like Samantha Warren’s Style Tiles (a presentable collection of visual elements inventoried for a design concept) and definitely a lot like design, and a good way to go about it. Rather than just throwing elements on a page, bringing elements together and then making adjustments to them so they all play the same design song is our goal, isn’t it? For me, it was such an a-ha moment, and it has changed how I sketch, Codepen tinker, and experiment in the browser.
What these two things have taught me is that when we’re stuck, we need to look outside of design, not just at other design. We need to draw inspiration more and more from other outlets that allow us to make and that allow us to get unstuck. We can learn something new, see something different, and make something interesting that way.