Writing An itch which must be scratched

Use Your Misery

When you’re suddenly inspired, there’s a sound.

Pop.

If I’m sitting next you when this happens, I won’t hear anything, but I’m going to see it in your face.

Pop.

What was… is now more.

It’s the “a-ha” moment. It’s the clouds parting. It’s insight. It’s the spark. There are endless ways to describe it, yet… it doesn’t happen as much as it should.

I’m just about done with the fourth major revision to the Rands in Repose weblog. At the moment, I think I’m about a day away from rolling the site out. A majority of the work has been defined… I don’t believe that I need more inspiration to complete the site which, being an engineer, means I’m likely three curse-word laden weeks away from actually being done.

The Pop which started Version 4 of the site had nothing to do with an entire site redesign. Driving home from work, I realized I wanted to I was add portions of my del.icio.us links to the sidebar of the site. I figured someone had already done the hard work and, I was right, it was trivial to do. Still, in mock-ups, typical headlines didn’t look right in my side bar. Wrong font… and the lists looked wrong. An itch which must be scratched.

So, I started tinkering with the CSS… then I was redoing headline font sizes… then I threw my hands up and yelled, “Hey, I’m touching everything ANYWAY… why not re-do the site?”

Creativity is a virus. As a small creative thought matures, it begins to infect all surrounding thought. What started out as a del.icio.us experiment resulted in three months of part time work. Endless editing. Additional swearing. Misery. Completion. For now.

Being Version 4 of the site, I’ve had three previous site redesigns and I’m becoming familiar with the process. I’ve already told you about how it begins, but let’s talk about the whole thing because there is useful stuff tucked in there.

Starting is the hardest moment because the rest is harder.

The single biggest delay to getting the new version of the site is my procrastination. Any creative process has to contend procrastination. In the case of the site redesign, the reason I often stand three feet behind my chair staring at the monitor and touching nothing is because I know how much work is left.

The internal dialog goes like this, “The prototype looks great, but I’ve still haven’t figured out the headline sizes and I want to revisit the font in the logo and DON’T GET MY STARTED ABOUT VALIDATION. You know, I could just play Halo and think about this later…”

It is suddenly one week later. No progress. Same pile. Weeks are lost considering what needs to be considered.

I now trick myself into progress. When I sit down at my desktop, I think, “No way I can get anything done, but I can fix that one graphic. Color isn’t quite right.” Tackling a small inconsequential task keeps the pile of work demons quiet because they don’t have a problem with a single graphic. They don’t know that once I finish that graphic, I’m going to have enough mental momentum to tackle another task… and another. Two hours later, I’m made legitimate progress.

Yes.

Let go of the idea that everything you do must be original. It’s our collective theft that is the bulk of creativity.

I always steal. I love it. If you’re a weblog nerd, you’ll might see visual design borrowed from other sources in the new design. My process is this. If I’m stumped by a visual element, I have twenty weblogs I surf. I look, I saturate, and I steal. What eventually ends up in the final product is usually not direct theft because later creative iterations mutate look and feel, but, yeah, I’m a thief. It’s the best.

Similar to getting starting procrastination, “I’m a unique voice” procrastination can be deal killer. If you believe that you must be completely original in whatever your creative endeavor is, you will never ever finish. Like it or not, you’re going to steal.

Know when to transform creativity into construction.

Great, so now I’m cranking. Idea pop all over the place and the weblog is coming together… except I have, well, one more thing to design. When that’s done… I’ll be good to go.

The design process is a blast, but at some point you’ve got to produce. It’s easy to hang out in design land because there is no right or wrong, it’s just raw creation and it’s fun to god, right? Problem is that your design intoxication is keeping you from finishing because you’re never going to get to the actual construction. This article is an excellent example of my inability to actually get the site done. I’m drinking coffee and writing about being done rather than actually being done. Why? The article is original work whereas the two hours of XHTML validation in my future is dullsville.

I’m always looking for the inflection point when I’m done. It’s the a moment in time when I look at a prototype or design and know that it’s complete. All the work which comes after that point will borrow from the base design. Yeah, there’s tons more work to do, but it’s work headed downhill… picking up momentum towards being done, it’s not the creative uphill push.

Use your misery.

This is the hardest to describe because it’s the trickiest to use.

Up until a week ago, the weblog design borrowed heavily from a wool hat I own. I love it. It’s got a great shape and a terrific shade of orange. I took close-up photographs of the texture and made it a background. I sampled the orange and slapped it all over the place. I used the texture again as part of the logo.

Hat everywhere.

I don’t need to show you a screenshot of this for you to understand it didn’t work. Weblogs are meant to be read. It’s the words that are paramount, not an annoying wool texture all over the place. Problem is, I love this hat. Rather than realizing you didn’t want to stare at my hat, I went to work on other layout issues.

A month later and the wool hat design is still festering. I’m done with other design issues and I’m officially creatively blocked on the final design because I can’t conceive of removing my beloved wool hat design elements. A weekend is spent staring at the design and I quickly move from concern to despair. I begin to think, well, I could just throw the whole thing away and start over.

Misery. Stress. Insomnia. I wish none of these on you… unless you really need to be inspired. These states of mind show up during any prolonged creative endeavor and they’re intent on stopping you. They do this by twisting your brain into interesting new shapes and it’s this altered perspective which is useful.

As I sat there staring at my wool hat weblog, I realized there were probably good design ideas on the page… I just couldn’t see them because I was BLINDED BY THE WOOL. So, I got a second opinion. Grabbed someone who had never seen the page before and, as expected, they barfed all my wool hat, but they also noticed the parts that worked. Turns out with a new logo and background, the site looks great and I still get my orange. Thanks Mike!

Misery is an obstacle. It doesn’t feel like that at the time, but it is. These obstacles are merely problems to be solved and the adversity they create is the mother of inspiration… of innovation.

6 Responses

  1. I figured there must be a redesign coming up when I came to your site and it was all screwed up beyond recognition on Friday. Did you accidentally load the new CSS without loading anything else or something?

    Anyway, I’m currently in the procrastination stage. I’ve had the same design for 15 months. The final design was kind of rushed out (I was about to return back to school, so I said “good enough”). I’ve also learned tons of new JavaScript and CSS since that time, so I could do some really cool stuff. But, as you say, it’s a lot of work.

    So maybe I’ll just sit here and play Halo.

  2. I’ve got several layouts and redesigns for mine on the backburner. I’ve stopped bothering to fret about them being unfinished and just accept that I’ll do it when I do it.

    I find my biggest block about it is trying to be TOO original. I’m sick to death of fixed-width centered stuff, so I want something variable-width like Cameron Adams or Jason Santa Maria. I’m sick of muted colours and monotones, so I want something bright like Dave Shea. I’m sick of the two-column #content+#sidebar, so I want a single column like Matt Mullenweg.

    I think for me, the key will be to develop a layout that works as fixed and variable width– fixed-single column for the homepage, two columns for nearly everywhere else, and a liquid column for photogallery.

  3. klaatu 12 years ago

    Talk Rands;

    You can also wear your orange hat on yr website, too 🙂

  4. Aaron Haynes 12 years ago

    All of this applies to modeling and moviemaking, too. I identified especially with the misery of realizing that a design isn’t working and isn’t ever going to work, but not being able to come to grips with the idea of starting over. It’s also hard to let go of that automatic “I’m a creative genius and the criticism of other people is worthless and retarded because they don’t see it the way I see it in my head” mentality, but time and time again it turns out they were right. Well, mostly.

    Fantastic read.

  5. John Whitlock 12 years ago

    If you like the topic of how creative thinking happens, I’d suggest “Conceptual Blockbusting: A Guide to Better Ideas” by James L. Adams. It’s been around for decades (your library probably has an old edition), but you might want to own your own copy so that you can highlight passages.

  6. Dennis Madrid 9 years ago

    You say you were “blinded by the wool”, does that mean the wool was pulled over your eyes?

    I’m sorry, but it needed to be said.