By Alex Maughan – Designer

3 March 2014

Creative crawling


As part of AOL’s The Future Starts Here series, Tiffany Shlain shares her ten steps to the creative process. Her steps make sense.

Abstracted creative advice making sense is the boring part for me, though. The interesting part is knowing that, for certain steps, you could argue with strong conviction that the exact opposite also makes sense.

This is the fun part of post-justifying successes, and why duplicating other people’s processes is probably the worst thing you could ever do as a creative person. You and you alone know all the variables at play. Only you truly know how to solve your distinct variation of problem sets, because only you can decide whether something was a success for you in the end. That’s what makes you a creative person, after all.

So, in the interests of offering yet more advice that probably won’t work for you and your specific creative dreams, here are possible contrary viewpoints to some of her steps, which in my mind make equal sense to hers.

1) The hunch: Any project starts with a hunch, and you have to act on it. It’s a total risk because you’re just about to jump off a cliff, and you have to go for it if you believe in it.

On the other hand, the immense consideration of human creative effort should never just start on a hunch. There’s lots of ways you can quickly explore an idea to see if it is going to be potentially viable or a complete waste of time before you decide to jump in. The jump doesn’t have to be completely blind. Sure, there’s always going to be a risk due to a collection of unknowns, but you can make a rational decision by weighing up the risks versus rewards.

Viability is not just about estimating business success, it’s also about your own creative happiness. A project may be received well by others, but you may end up hating it because you didn’t think it through properly beforehand.

2) Talk about it: Tell your family, tell your friends, tell your community… they’re the ones who are going to support you on this whole treacherous journey of the creative process, so involve them, engage them.

Or, maybe don’t talk about it prematurely. In my experience, the more some people talk about a project before they actually do it, the less likely they will follow through. The explanation lies in our psychology of achievement. By talking about something with friends and family – the people who support you the most – you run the risk of receiving enough positive feedback to your wonderful musings that this feedback turns into some kind of achievement; an achievement that soon feels like an end in itself, which can become addictive. So, maybe try doing something before talking about it, and avoid prematurely seeking positive reinforcement for something you’ve yet to act on in any concrete way.

3) The sponge: I’m going to tons of art shows, I’m watching a lot of movies, I’m reading voraciously… and I’m just sponging up ideas and trying to formulate my own idea about the subject.

Well, maybe you should have a go at experimenting in isolation from the prevailing norm. Maybe you should try shielding yourself from current trends, just for a bit, to see if you can approach your subject matter from a fresh angle. The more you follow others and seek to gorge yourself with the easily-consumed inspiration of other people’s work, the more likely you are to start regurgitating things without even knowing where those things came from. You fast get habituated to trends, so much so that other people’s way of thinking becomes your natural default (without you even being conscious of it).

10) Know when you are done.

Deadlines are real, but know that you are never done and learn to be fine with this. This is an essential part to being a happy creative person, who chooses not to step out in front of fast-moving buses on a daily basis. Having a hard-set belief in the term done only opens you up to the realisation that your done wasn’t as good as someone else’s done. It forces the possibility of failure on you at every turn.

Instead, by realising you’re never done, you are able to see the bigger picture: you’ll keep getting better, and that’s all that matters. Your sense of achievement shifts slightly for the betterment of your own health. This may be a case of semantics, but I promise, if you’re a perfectionist, this way of thinking is tremendously helpful. Accept there’s always a point when you need to show or handover your work, but don’t think of it as done. It’s just another starting point to keep getting better.

10 February 2014

The horrors of complexity


There’s been some noise around how badly the hamburger menu icon has faired with less tech savvy testing participants. While these findings may be exposing a partial truism, I believe the blanket statement that laypeople don’t know what the hamburger icon does is problematic.

Seeing as this site uses a hamburger icon it would be natural to assume that I’m trying to argue the opposite about its efficacy. But this would be a very incorrect assumption.

So, to be as clear as possible from the outset, my intent here is not to argue the opposite, nor is it to undermine the very valuable practice of user testing. I believe ‘hard’ quantitive data is regularly used to get away with hideously erroneous conclusions by taking advantage of people’s blind trust in numbers. So I’m not solely picking on its qualitative sister. My intent is to highlight the importance of context, as well as the necessity of not globalising conclusions without any reference to the vast variations at play from one context to the next. My focus here is more about how we choose to consume and share data, and the conclusions we make around that data.

In the first paragraph I refer to “testing participants”. My wording is intentional. I did not refer to “users” because there’s a significant difference between the two. The experience and cognitive state of a human who is the subject of a usability test is very different to the experience and cognitive state of a human using a site or application away from the judging eyes of strangers. A testing participant arrives at an interface with a different state of mind, no matter how much we hope to contrive otherwise. This is not say that participants are completely different to users. Not at all. I believe in user testing, but context matters, and, therefore, so does observer’s paradox.

For more information on observer’s paradox, I suggest reading some peer-reviewed social science fieldwork – any sociolinguist or anthropologist worth their ethnographic salt should be well aware of it, and therefore should temper their data with contextual caveats. If we want to make global statements that affect projects outside of the one we’re currently testing for, we should hold our work to the same rigour. Otherwise we should admit our conclusions are not necessarily transportable.

Further to this, context on the screen matters just as much as context off the screen. A somewhat obvious statement, but a UI element will have differing levels of efficacy from one design to the next. Design is subject to both macro and micro patterns. A hamburger icon is a micro element whose efficacy is affected by macro decisions made around it both spatially and temporarily (usability is largely about journeys, after all).

So, really thinking about the psychological state of testing participants, the sociolinguistic cues used to prompt them, as well as the huge variation at play within digital interfaces (most importantly the complex variation of information hierarchies therein), you then start start to understand the mine field in which user centred designers are operating. The fact that they come out of this not sat huddled in the corner in a weeping mess, peeling paint off the wall is a miracle; it’s proof of human fortitude against the horrors of complexity.

This complexity is also true with quantitive data. There’s a stack-load of conditions around any number-orientated research, all of which are subject to interpretation. Context on and off the screen matters just as much in quantitative studies as it does in qualitative studies.

For example, I can very easily give you a percentage of users that do not use a certain UI element. That number says nothing about why they’re not using it. It provides you with no sample size criteria vis-a-vis potential (versus actual) culturally-relevant users for your site. It does not provide you with any comparative data on how an alternative element faired, or over how a long a period this data was gathered, or how other layout and user flow decisions around that element played a part on that percentage, or what kind of goals your users were trying to achieve in the first place when coming to your site, and how that element ties into those goals. That number I just gave you is, in fact, completely meaningless, but it sure did sound good. It sounded scientific.

Qualitative user testing is far better at answering many of those questions, and that is why it is valuable in the design process. However, because we are aware of the power that numbers have in most people’s minds, we sometimes conflate qualitative methods with quantitative methods to empower our conclusions. I’ve already written briefly about this problem, as it falls into the trap of the law of small numbers. This applies to the sweeping hamburger conclusion regarding laypeople. We too quickly believe that adding up just a few qualitative tests from different sources, each of which only had a handful of participants, somehow translates into a sample size big enough to rule out deviations from the norm. This is a statistical mistake. Moreover, it assumes the same conditions were at play during each of those test sessions from different sources, which is, quite frankly, near impossible.

Yeah, so where’s the TL;DR conclusion part of all of this? Well, one of the reasons so much of us love a globally sweeping conclusion is because it is a type of TL;DR. “Just give me a number; a percentage I can throw at others.” It doesn’t work that way. And this is the whole point of this post. My feathers get slightly ruffled when we too easily apply sweeping conclusions to things. It’s completely understandable, though. I’m guilty of it all the time, but I hope people call me on it. It probably helps with our sanity and general fortitude against the horrors of complexity. But this particular type of fortitude is a sedative not a silver bullet, and it ultimately doesn’t help us be better designers.

10 January 2014

Can capitalism survive?


In his 1947 work, Can Capitalism Survive? 1, the economist Joseph Schumpeter makes a noteworthy observation of the bourgeoisie. The description is perhaps obvious, but is a clear reminder of our 2 fundamental station in society; the unavoidable truth of our perceived value within the monetised gears of North-Western 3 modernity.

Prizes and penalties are measured in pecuniary terms. Going up and going down means making or losing money. This, of course, no-body can deny. But I wish to add that, within its own frame, that social arrangement is, or at all events was, singularly effective. In part it appeals to, and in part it creates, a schema of motives that is unsurpassed in simplicity and force. The promises of wealth and the threats of destitution that it holds out, it redeems with ruthless promptitude. Wherever the bourgeoisie way of life asserts itself sufficiently to dim the beacons of other social worlds, these promises are strong enough to attract the large majority of supernormal brains and to identify success with business success.

Being in the tech/web industry, that last sentence rings true. Especially when you see smart people essentially being tasked with superficial 4 concerns – all in the service of reaping short-term profit.

Schumpeter believed that the growing intellectual class within the bourgeoisie (thanks to freedoms of wealth), will eventually start to undermine capitalism from the inside-out (as apposed to Marx, who believed the proletariat would destroy it from the outside-in).

Will capitalism eventually be replaced by a more socialist arrangement? Schumpeter, as an objective economist who had no personal issue with capitalism, certainly thought so. It’s just a matter of time in his opinion. Quite a bit of time, it seems (with this opinion being stated in 1947).

The life I live and enjoy is certainly one of capitalist intent, but I do often wonder what kind of substance a life with a primary pursuit of money really has. I wonder what my life would be like were I not completely bound to a schema of success that is intrinsically linked to success in business and, if we’re honest, to very little else.

Perhaps it is my liberal education (ie being part of the growing intellectual class to which Schumpeter referred), but I do believe there are higher ideals we could be holding forth. This is not to say I believe it is a simple case of capitalism versus no capitalism. I just think pure capitalistic tendencies need to start taking a backseat in society. I don’t think monetised profit should remain the primary schematic force behind our evaluations of success. It quickly becomes an empty paradigm, in my opinion.


  1. Never fear hardened capitalist pigs (joke), his argument is not a Marxist one and, unlike Marx, he does not take pleasure in his conclusion that capitalism won’t ultimately survive.
  2. I write as a member of the bourgeoisie myself.
  3. ‘The West’ is a geographical misnomer. We use it in a way that actually refers to most North-West countries viz. our most common map of the world.
  4. Granted, superficial is a very relative term and, if held to post-modern ideas around truth, almost everything can be adjudged to be superficial. But, in my own subjective opinion (this is a personal blog after all), there’s a large amount of work being done in my industry by very clever people that I can’t help but see as asinine and superficial.