Sunday, June 17, 2007

Stephen King on Writing -- And Design

I like this no-nonsense essay by Stephen King, Everything You Need to Know About Writing Successfully - in Ten Minutes. I think it applies to doing good design as well.

Here's my remapping to design:

  • "Be talented" should go without saying. Design is an art, too, even if it's data-driven. There is still creativity involved in knowing how to ask the right questions and take insight from the data.
  • "Be neat" may be my own weakest point -- I'm a sketchy ideas person, and struggle for the pixel perfect after the big insights. But I keep trying and see it as a self-improvement challenge.
  • "Be self-critical." If you haven't thrown away a bunch of ideas, and can't show that you have, you're probably not talented. The same goes for photography or any other art that takes practice to do well. Idea generation is easy, choosing the right ones for the right reasons is the skill part.
  • "Remove every extraneous feaure." That's my redoing of King's "extraneous word." It's about clean design -- it's harder to get to the core than it is to throw in everything you thought of. It's also braver, faced with the "featuritis-sells" mentality that even some (most?) customers have in saturated markets.
  • "Never look at a reference while doing the first design." Hmmm... In the spirit of letting creativity run free, I like this. But I need to think some more about its applicability here.
  • "Know the market." Know the users, know the competition, know the business. Don't work in a creative, monk-like vacuum. Your work won't be very smart and your clients/company will stare at you funny when you present it.
  • "Design to improve someone's life." King had "write to entertain," and I lean towards keeping it at the same sentiment even for a professional product -- but instead I think this is about more, like elegance, and beauty, and that "wow" moment that people get from using something that works well and does exactly what they didn't know they wanted it to do!
  • "Don't design if you've stopped having fun." If you've turned into one of those hurt, tired people who feels like no one gets it and you're wasted there, you can't be Jonathan Ive at Apple. (I don't know if he's tired, but he did stick it out and it eventually paid off.)
  • "Take usability input and use the design or start fresh." King's point is about how to weigh feedback: if you hear different things from everyone, you can probably ignore it safely; otherwise, take it seriously even if you don't like it.
  • "If it's bad, kill it." Too few companies can do this; designers themselves need to be able to do it with authority to their own ideas. You're a hack if you don't know how to filter your own ideas. Remember, ideas are cheap! You are paid to be creative, right?
Successful people are generally also practical, and King really brought that home to me. In fewer words than I would have done, to be sure! His introduction story makes a few other good points: Even people who are talented need critique and input from more experienced people to get better at what they do. They need to be receptive to that. And not everything they design will be for a domain they know something about. It's part of the talent of a good designer to get into the heads of potential users, to do the research to understand them as input to the design process.

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