As digital designers we need to keep evolving. There’s no standing still for us. That may feel like a constant pressure and can certainly be a source of distraction and a short-term impediment to productivity. But the alternative is far worse.
When I say we should be evolving, I’m simply talking about getting better at our jobs. All the time. Mastery is a source of happiness and satisfaction, and with happiness and satisfaction comes productivity. Or rather an absence of satisfaction reduces productivity by leaving us sluggish, disengaged and bereft of flow.
One of the best ways to continually improve, apart from practise and reading publications like this one, is to look around and take on what we see as good.
In his collection of essays on poetry and literary criticism, “The Sacred Wood”, TS Eliot wrote:
“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.”
You might be more familiar with “Good artists copy, great artists steal” supposedly said by Picasso (but actually popularised and misattributed by Steve Jobs in an interview 20 years ago). What Picasso did say though is:
“When there’s anything to steal, I steal.“
Picasso subsequently explained himself by referring to the work of his contemporary:
“You have got to be able to picture side by side everything Matisse and I were doing at that time. No one has ever looked at Matisse's painting more carefully than I; and no one has looked at mine more carefully than he.”
This difference between copying and stealing in this case is not one of intellectual property rights. It’s not about taking someone else’s idea and pretending it’s yours.
If you copy someone else’s technique or method without thinking, you’ll be using something that worked for them in their circumstances. By stealing a technique you are making it your own. You’ll have to work out why it works for them, and how it can work for you. Adapting and moulding the technique as necessary. Maybe completely changing the context in which you use it. This is a creative and intellectual challenge, and an opportunity to expand your repertoire.
One good example is a design game we play at Clearleft called Fuzzy Edges. We stole it from Agile’s planning poker.
Planning Poker is a consensus-based estimating technique where a project team estimates how long a given user story should take. The idea is that the team discusses the feature together and then all at the same time the estimators hold up a card with a number. If everyone has the same value, that becomes the estimate. If not the process is repeated until consensus is reached.
Fluffy edges takes the same idea for role mapping. We have a list of roles and jobs that need to be done for a project and go through them one by one with the team holding up people’s names for each role until consensus is reached. We do this with our client and also as an internal team. And there’s where it really comes into its own. We ask about the roles that normally fall through the cracks - where there are fuzzy areas around roles and ownership. For example:
“Who is responsible for asking the client if we can use their name in publicity?”
“Who will organise a revisit of the work post-launch?”
“Who is responsible for the learning on this project?”
We always assign someone to be responsible for the learning. At the beginning of each project - usually just before or just after the kick-off - we get together as a team to think about what we as a team and as individuals can learn from the project. This includes what we might be able to try out that’s new. We revisit the list at the end of the project to see if it panned out and to disseminate what we learned with the rest of the company.
Ensuring we learn from each other, right across the company, is really important to us. It means we pick up new things, get to know who has tried certain techniques and collectively get a sense of involvement in what we as a company have done. We do this in a few ways.
Firstly each discipline team - visual designers, front-end developers, project managers, UX designers - gets together once a week for an hour or so to talk shop. This might take the form of a round-the-room design review, talking through a specific challenge, discussing a new tool. Whatever we like really, and it changes from week to week.
These team pow-wows are all open to everyone, so quite often there will be a mix of disciplines in the room. This helps embed a mutual respect and understanding throughout the company. If a front-end developer thinks a UI element will be hard for users to understand then it’s completely expected - and appreciated - that they will say so and suggest an alternative. (In fact knowing our developers, they are likely to come armed with a little prototype to show a solution.)
We also run regular ‘brown bag’ lunches where the whole company is invited to hear a short presentation from anyone who has something they want to share, such as a summary of a project we’ve just finished, or a new technique to share.
Another thing we’ve just started is our ‘Innovation Bacon’ all-hands monthly meeting. Everyone gets a bacon sandwich (or equivalent) in return for celebrating and disseminating the new things that we inevitably devise or use as we work on projects. Each project team spends no more than 10 minutes telling the rest of us what they've done for the first time during that month. That might be trying a new piece of software or framework, a different kind of sketching workshop, a tweaked way to get Agile into our design process. Anything that we've never quite done before at Clearleft. These little innovations are inevitable, and there’s a good reason for that.
When we started Clearleft in 2005, web design as a profession was well established. It had already burst its bubble at least once. Even so, like everyone else we were still making it up as we went along, and we still are. We’re proud of that - it’s how we go about our work - and it’s built right into two of our core values: Own It and Be Fleet of Foot.
‘Be Fleet of Foot’ is about being flexible nimble and adaptable. ’Own it’ is about autonomy - being empowered and encouraged to make independent decisions and forge new paths. On that note, Buckminster Fuller said:
“The majority of people do nothing about their good ideas. They never risk action.”
Don’t panic about keeping up, just try stuff out. Think of what you do - whether design or otherwise - not as a repeatable process but as toolbox. A really awesome TARDIS of a toolbox that you keep adding to. One that grows as you grow. As Bruce Lee wrote in his ‘Tao of Jeet Kune Do’:
“Use only that which works and take it from any place you can get it”.
And that’s how we should approach our toolkits. If you come across something new that piques your interest - maybe at a conference, maybe just in passing or in some other professional context, look for opportunities to use that thing. If you can identify that the tool or activity will be useful - but most importantly you assess the risks of using it and come to the conclusion that it will do more good than harm, then go for it. It’s a just a case of how right that tool proves to be, and you’ll something very useful either way. Each time you reach for a tool in box, ask yourself why you’re using tat particular one and whether there’s an opportunity to try something new. Don’t forget the old adage ask for forgiveness not permission.
We’ve chosen a really exciting profession. Things are always changing. There’s always new stuff to learn about and improve upon. And if we grab the opportunity to do so we’ll be happier for it. Learning and mastery is our route to happiness, satisfaction and with those comes productivity.