Design View | Articles and opinion on design professionalism, technique and culture by Andy Rutledge

Falling Down

January 22, 2008

I’ve been a martial arts student for a couple of decades and in that time I’ve known quite a few others who were brilliant technicians and were otherwise formidable individuals, but lacked a fundamental skill set: the ability to fall safely and gracefully. This is a grave omission, because training with the belief that things will always go well and as-planned is delusional. Delusion is not a sound context for any serious endeavor; like design, for instance.

The first part of the article to follow is allegory. It does eventually return to the context of design and I beg your indulgence.

I have seen this sort of scene played out in the dojo many times, generally involving a visiting student:

“Joe” is a formidable man and his technique is solid—and it should be, considering his relatively high rank. Everything about his manner and his technical execution indicates competence. But then during a sparring drill, he loses his balance (or is thrown, or is directly unbalanced) and he tries desperately to remain upright, and fails. He falls with all the grace of a wooden giraffe, resulting in a nasty broken (insert minor injury of your choice). It becomes immediately apparent to all watching that his seeming competence is façade. He is not so much a warrior, as a showman. He should be thankful that this is training and not an actually violent situation.

Falling and rolling are the most important and useful of all self-defense skills. Additionally, any student of any martial art that lacks skill in falling and rolling is largely incompetent, regardless of whatever other skills he or she may possess. The reason for this is the same as was mentioned at the start of this article. It is simply a fact that imperfect situations are the most common situations.

There is a maxim in martial arts training that goes, the more you bleed in the dojo, the less you bleed outside of it. In an effort to stay true to this maxim, my instructors ensured that there was ample opportunity to practice the techniques of things-gone-wrong. Sometimes we’d spend the entire class rolling around on the floor. Sometimes we’d take dozens of high breakfalls flat onto a hardwood floor. This means that we students first had to learn how to survive the training before we could learn to survive anything more violent.

The result of all of this was that we learned how to fall properly and not injure ourselves. We also learned how to turn any sort of fall or roll into a continuation of our defensive strategy so that the fall becomes a seamless and innocuous element in our overall execution of technique. But perhaps just as important, we learned to lose our fear of falling and indeed embrace the joy of “flying.” And this is a good thing, because it is only when we can take to falling like a fish to water that we possess any relevant competence for the context of violence. It is a fact: in a violent situation, things will go awry. This is the rule; everything else is the exception.

Design and other violence

If you’re a designer, you know that perfect designs do not always spontaneously flow from your pen. You know that truly creative solutions that effectively serve the client’s and users’ needs do not always present themselves when you want them to. In short, it is simply not enough to be highly competent under the best of circumstances, when you’re filled with inspiration and all the gears are turning. What matters most—and most often—is how competent you are when things are not going well.

Most often we have to labor through a lack of inspiration or search for an overly-elusive answer to an IA conundrum. These sorts of situations favor the prepared.

I firmly believe that a professional’s most important design skill is the ability to behave well and respond gracefully in bad circumstances, and then emerge well-balanced and prepared. Oh, it is a skill—something learned through practice and dogged repetition, which must be honed, and continually re-evaluated. And I believe this not just from what I’ve learned in my design practice, but rather from experience in and observation of a host of other endeavors. In every one of these cases I find the facts don’t change; as I alluded to above, grace under less-than-desirable conditions trumps just about every other quality we may possess. Again, it is a fact: things will go awry. This is the rule; everything else is the exception.

I can probably count on one hand the number of projects for which the right design solution for a client just poured out of me. The rest of the time I had to gut it out, to one degree or another. Surely my experience is not unlike that of many designers. Most often we have to labor through a lack of inspiration or search for an overly-elusive answer to an IA conundrum. These sorts of situations favor the prepared.

But more to the point, these sorts of situations favor those who look to unfavorable circumstances like these not with fear and contempt, but rather with resolve and practiced technique. It is quite simple—design is not the process of perfect data and perfect inspiration and perfect creativity and perfect execution and perfect response …and you know it. Design is a process conducted most often in an annoyingly fluid context filled with unplanned-for changes, where we grope for inspiration and flub our first 10 layout sketch trials, as hope for success fades a bit more each hour. So, clearly, we must get comfortable and develop technique.

Like being thrown down in the dojo, taking a design process “fall” often involves an uncomfortable thud. Practice and experience with this context can either make us gun-shy or provide us with confidence based on past successes. It depends on how we choose to respond to and use these opportunities and how much concentrated effort we put into them. In a sense, it is required that we lose our fear of falling and embrace flying.

Falling gracefully

As students in the dojo, we were of course offered basic instruction on falling and rolling technique. But as with most things, the most instructive experience came from the more immediate feedback of pain, the onset of nagging discomfort, and the inevitability of seemingly endless repetition. We developed effective technique quickly or we suffered for it (or just quit; a popular choice).

As with a physical fall, one can learn effective techniques for mitigating unpleasant circumstances when the design process does not go as we’d like. But also as with physical training, I find that effective technique is in some ways quite personal, and so only basic suggestions are advisable. Here are some techniques that work for me. Your mileage may vary.

Role Playing
Given that we are not likely going to be the ones using the application or website we’re designing, it is always useful to adopt a particular persona and then imagine what sort of user experience and structural flow we then expect or need or just want. As designers, it is necessary that we’re practiced at seeing through the eyes of others so that we have a highly adaptable subjective experience. As I’ve mentioned in other articles, a designer’s subjective experience must differ from that of most other people.

By getting into the habit of adopting various personae and then finding the consistently advisable patterns, it should become easier to recover from a design stumbling block. And this is easier than it sounds, because human beings behave and conduct their affairs according to very simple and very predictable patterns. As a designer, you should already understand many of these relevant behavioral patterns—or you should be very busy learning them. This sort of understanding is vital to effective design thinking and execution.

I find that the most useful reservoir of design conundrum salvation resides in revisiting artistic and communicative fundamentals. If I’m having trouble arriving at the right sort of navigation structure or page layout it is usually because I’m ignoring these vital factors in my work. I’ve found that if I work to apply advisable, contextually consistent fundamental principles to the individual elements (navigation, layout, color contrast, etc.), things begin to fall into place.

Understanding clearly how you respond in certain situations and to certain impediments is not something to regard lightly. For as circumstances change and obstacles vary, the one constant in all of your work is you.

There is nothing more responsible for effective, communicative composition than the basics of artistry. If we habitually return to fundamentals in times of crisis, we’re inevitably making the right move.

Use Cases
Sometimes when we’re having trouble arriving at the right design it is because we know there are things we haven’t yet accounted for in the page behavior or the user experience. We end up trying to juggle too many “invisible” elements in the design and become overwhelmed. It is therefore required that we expose these as-yet unaccounted for elements as thoroughly as possible. Then, once we’ve got an idea of the various scenarios we must account for, it becomes easier to create a workable solution.

Just as we’re not able to design until we know what sort of content will be involved, we must also know all of the other relevant elements in the equation in order to produce an accurate and viable solution. Constructing and working through all of the likely use cases can present us with the necessary useful constraints to help jumpstart our overall or context-specific design effort.

Know your enemy and know yourself

It is certainly necessary to be competent in exposing the external factors that can contribute to design stumbles, but it’s not enough. To be truly competent you’ve also got to thoroughly understand your own habits and propensities. Understanding clearly how you respond in certain situations and to certain impediments is not something to regard lightly. For as circumstances change and obstacles vary, the one constant in all of your work is you.

Perhaps you are most successful when you plow through design doldrums. Or, maybe you respond better to stepping away from the sketchpad and playing a game of badminton or catching a movie. Perhaps you require large chunks of time to pedantically work through design problems, or maybe you find that inspiration strikes like lightning and you often bang out solutions in just a few minutes after a lull. Either way, whatever techniques you adopt and develop, you’ve also got to apply them in a way that best suits you.

But rest assured: inspiration will desert you, complexities will overwhelm you, your mind will become muddled, scope changes will annoy you, deadlines will taunt you, and work volume will oppress you (if you’re lucky). If you’re a professional it is a given that you will go to the mat for your client. What is uncertain is how you will respond to that stumble and fall and how gracefully you will descend and emerge from it.

It is good to develop the techniques that serve you well in pleasant times, but you will be left largely incompetent if you’re not prepared for the rough times. Things will go awry. This is the rule; everything else is the exception.

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