Trail: The Urge to Create
This article was written in 2017. It might or it might not be outdated. And it could be that the layout breaks. If that’s the case please let me know.
If I want to improve the awareness of accessibility and inclusive design, I think one of the things I need to do is trying to get an understanding of the different reasons why different designers want to make things. Why did they choose a creative job, instead of whatever else there is. Why did they decide to design stuff for others, and not, for instance, decide to become an artist?
I also want to know what their different definitions of quality are. What makes a thing good? And what makes a thing not good?
Since designing in an inclusive way means that you consider all kinds of restrictions during the design process, I also want to know what kinds of restrictions designers face, and how they deal with them.
I made a visual mindmap of all the aspects of The Urge To Create. All branches are explained in more detail below. There’s also a document about the need to use things.
Reasons to make things
There are many reasons to make things. I made up most of these reasons during a fast brainstorm session. I haven’t tested or validated them yet.
I’ve actually talked to a few designers who told me that the fact that things need to be improved is their main drive to create.
Astrid Poot and her design agency Familie van Fonk explicitly create things that improve the quality of life of the people who use these things. So their goal is not making the client richer, it’s improving the lives of the people who use the things they create.
When I asked Niko Spelbrink if everything was better in the good old days he explained that no, things were terrible. And that was exactly the reason why he became a designer. The world needed improvement. And when I asked him if the goal was reached, if things are good enough now he again said that no, things are not good enough. We still need designers.
The reason why Marrije creates stuff is that there are so many things that people need that are not usable, or at least not good enough. Another reason why she and her team create the friendly things they make is because there are many people who create stuff to do evil.
Peter van Grieken
Peter’s reasons for creating things are a bit more specific: while one of the core principles of the web is the idea that it’s there for everyone, he still sees so many sites that are very hard, or even impossible to use for people with disabilities.
Charlie argues that improving things is the number one reason why designers should want to create things. And it’s something designers can learn. And as such it’s up to design schools to teach students to have a critical look at the world around them, and at their own work.
Somebody wants it
This is a pretty broad reason. Who is this somebody? It can be a child, it can be a cop, it can be a cop in a corrupt country, it can be someone who wants to create a wall to keep out people they don’t like. The thing these somebodies have in common is that they are not the designer. It’s always someone else. So a certain amount of empathy is needed.
Somebody needs it
This is a stronger version. Here’s it’s not just that someone wants it, here somebody actually needs it. This can be anything. Things like tax forms, certain shops and wayfinding pop to mind.
I like solving complex problems
This is a reason that can be used for many other professions as well. I guess many lawyers, engineers or scientists use it as well. Maybe this needs an addition: I like solving complex problems for people
I want to bring order in the chaos
Maartje Heijsteeg, a graphic designer told me that the reason why she creates things is to bring order in complex sets of data, that are hard to grasp without this order.
I want to earn a living
Many people do. Not really design specific, but it could be the number one reason for many designers.
I want to become rich/famous
This goes beyond earning a living. There are people who become very rich with designing things. I have the idea that this is more something for people in the advertisment industry, but that’s a wild guess
Niko Spelbrink uses the term striping for people who create shiny stuff for the money. Their goal is an extra stripe on their BMW.
I want to make things for fun
Things that pop to mind are entertainment, games, music, etc. Not life saving, but very important never the less.
I like making things
I guess most designers somehow like making things. They would really have picked the wrong professions if they didn’t.
There’s this Dutch word “klooien” which sometimes means something like creating things while messing around. It’s something like tinkering, but not exactly.
Some people decide to grow from a klooier to an expert. Others think they do.
Others keep on klooiing. This definitely needs more research.
What makes a thing good
There are many different reasons why people make things, so I assume there are at least as many, but probably more different definitions of quality. When is a thing good?
A famous quote by someone famous is:
Design is not how it looks, it’s how it works. Quite a few people I spoke to used this as their definition of quality. Though there are quite a few different interpretation of this.
Rahul explained that there are several layers of it works. On the web there’s the visual layer most people interact with. But there are several hidden, or less obvious layers that need to work as well to make an application good.
Jonne explained that it works also depends on context.
It fits within a set of rules/principles
Setting up a set of design principles can help in maintaining a vision throughout all the iterations of the design process.
It makes me happy
The designer is happy. This can be invalidated by usability tests. This can be painful and is something you should learn.
Client is content
The client is happy. This can be invalidated by usability tests, but clients can be hard to convince.
Users are satisfied
This can sometimes be in conflict with some business interests. Make sure you have a friendly priority of constituencies which always prioritises the users.
In itself the fact that something is beautiful is no guarantee that something is usable. It may lift a product from merely useful to delightful though. In his book Thoughts on Design Paul Rand quotes John Dewey who once said:
No matter how useful it is … it will not be useful in the ultimate degree — that of contributing directly and liberally to an expanding and enriched life.
Others, like Rahul Choudhurry, argue that the urge to make things beautiful sometimes break things.
It brings in money
Bills have to be paid. This sometimes means that you have to do work that doesn’t live up to your standards. This should be an exception. It’s dangerous as well. It can lead to portfolio-creep.
The urge to create stuff that you’ve never seen before can lead to new insights. Most of the time this insight will be that the reason why you never saw it before is not because you are a brilliant artist, but because others found out that it simply doesn’t work. They simply forgot to share this with the rest of the world.
The first rule in Dieter Rams’ set of principles says that the thing you design should be innovative. A good understanding of what innovation means is necessary. Sometimes innovation is confused with originality.
It’s visually pleasing
See the section about beauty.
Can work very well in films and advertising. Can be a disaster in products that people have to use.
This is relevant if it’s not a single thing — a website, a multi channel campaign, etc. If it’s not consistent it’s harder to use or understand. Probably not the first attribute of what makes a thing good though.
It’s an improvement
A new thing should be better than the thing it replaces.
Something else is more important
This one is from Maaike van Cruchten. When I asked her
when is a thing done? she said
when something else becomes more important. Maybe this is more like a definition of done, and not a definition of quality per se.
what makes a thing not good
There are quite a few different reasons why things are considered to be not good from a maker’s perspective. Here are a few.
The thing is ugly. There are people who don’t care about this. And of course, debate is possible, and trends.
It doesn’t …
If it doesn’t do a certain thing, it might be not good. Here are a few things:
If good design means that it works, this is indeed a defintion that it’s not good.
… do what it’s supposed to do
Similar to “it doesn’t work”, a bit more specific
… do what we promised
This is a tricky one. Maybe you promised something it wasn’t really supposed to do. So it might actually be a good thing now, even though you are not satisfied.
Some designers like focus
Users are unhappy
User centred designers will find this an important issue. Striping designers probably disagree with the users.
Client not happy
This can mean anything from a user perspective. It’s probably not positive from a business perspective
Didn’t pay the bills
Could be related to the one about the client who is not happy. Can have to do with lack of expertise. In case of charity this is not a reason to call a thing not good
Boring can be a good thing as well.
Not better than before
If there was no other benefit from making the thing, this is indeed not good.
What are the restrictions?
The restrictions makers face are different than the ones that users have to works with.
Technology can be immature, not understood, not well enough, or evil, to name a few. It can also be restricting the creative process: we’ll make an app, while a physical thing might actually be a better solution.
Different ambitions of different stakeholders could be restricting. Different ambition levels can work restricting as well.
You may be able to come up with a brilliant solution, but if there’s nobody in your team who can create it, that’s of no real use. The talent and skills of the people you work with are definitely a thing to consider.
There’s never enough time.
Is the team a good team? Can they work together? Do they motivate each other? Are the right skills present? Is the goal clear?
Money can be a restriction on several levels. Budget is restricting. Making money can also be a restriction. For instance, if a company wants to make money fast at any cost, this will probably have consequences for the usability.
Legal teams can form restrictions on many levels.
There’s this myth that The Market will solve anything. It turns out that every now and then it needs some stimulation from politics. Things like privacy, accessibility, etc, might be forgotten. If politicians are ill informed, or evil, this can be a big problem, of course.
Things may or may not be acceptable in ones social circle. Or you might think about the consequences, the impact of the thing you’re creating.
Not sure if this is a big issue for digital design.
If a feature or technology turns out to be insecure, don’t use it. Flash, for example. This has consequences for people who create software as well: software may become unsafe, which means you have a maintenance responsibility, which might have influence on the money and time restrictions.