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

My Precious

July 21, 2008

One of the important themes running through Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, and that story’s associated foundational histories, is corruption. The taint of corruption is manifest throughout these stories in several ways and stems from a variety of sources, but the corruption of the One Ring is the most conspicuous of these manifestations. It is also the one we get to see evolve, transfer among, and grow in several of the main characters. There’s a design lesson here.

Designers, both humble and powerful, are as likely to fall prey to this sort of corruption as the characters in Tolkien’s story, and for the very same reasons. We have egos, we suffer periodic disappointments, and so in the effort to find or craft an unblemished or highly enjoyable project it is all too easy for a designer to cling too tightly to an idea, regarding it as precious, and equate it with holding tightly to integrity. Because of the forces that impact our work, designers can be especially prone to what one might call the corruption of the precious.

In Tolkien’s story, Gollum is absolutely corrupted by and fully given over to the influence of the One Ring; what he refers to “the precious” or “my precious.” Yet this sort of absolute corruption is not precisely what I’m referring to. Instead, I’m talking about the sort of corruption that occurs in other characters who are near the Ring. They are often good people of clear vision and sober judgment. Even so, they allow themselves to be corrupted into uncharacteristic behavior; anything from ongoing slight agitation, to a momentary lapse, to a persistent disregard for wisdom or goodness that colors their every decision and action. The general lesson here is that inappropriate attachment inevitably leads to inappropriate results.

The perils of attachment

If you typically get ideas for finished or partial design solutions very early your design projects, you are in good company. Designers are generally fast thinkers and practiced at imagining fairly workable concepts quickly. Because of this otherwise beneficial trait, however, it is important that you not hold initial ideas too precious. For if you do, it becomes easy for all of your further trials to somehow lead back to that initial idea, no matter how inappropriate it may later be proven to be. Yet it is likely that these facts will be lost on you.

…It can prevent you from even recognizing which information holds relevance. Even if you are somehow able to recognize relevant data, you’ll be compelled to discount it or rationalize it away. When this happens, you stop being a designer and become something less.

One of the primary features of the corruption of the precious is the way it prevents contextually appropriate information from penetrating your thought processes and evaluations, while at the same time damaging your design process. Part of the trouble here is that, at the time, the influence of corruption may make it seem like these effects bring focus to your work. But this is not focus. This is blindness; a blindness that prevents you from seeing other more viable options, or makes you ignore factors that suggest you are on the wrong path. Luckily, we all possess something that helps to point out these inconsistencies in our work—if we are not too far gone to pay attention: cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance is a state of mental discomfort that arises when we hold incompatible or competing thoughts or ideas. Cognitive dissonance usually results in our taking one of two actions: 1) we reevaluate things in order to find resolution through facts and standards, or 2) we rationalize by discounting conflicting data. For instance, if you notice or are told that you’re driving your car a little above the posted speed limit and you don’t necessarily want to slow down, you engage in a bit of an internal debate. You don’t want to slow down, but you also know it’s unlawful not to. You think your passenger may be uncomfortable, but you also think you’re an excellent driver and that your passenger should trust you. Since there’s plenty of room for reevaluation or for rationalization here, you decide which of the data hold the most relevance and you adjust (or not) accordingly. Cognitive dissonance resolved (or dissolved).

But with design, there’s a hitch if you’re under the influence of the corruption of the precious. It can prevent you from even recognizing which information holds relevance. Even if you are somehow able to recognize relevant data, you’ll be compelled to discount it or rationalize it away. When this happens, you stop being a designer and become something less. It is likely, however, that you won’t notice this transition at all. Being corrupted, you’ll be numb to it.

Corruption of the precious is a kind of opiate for designers. It takes the edge off; it smoothes out the rough edges of poor designs and it comfortably blurs our critical vision. With this design morphine coursing through our veins, our ad hoc efforts are bathed in a sort of warm glow and any choice that is close to or associated with our initial precious concept is enveloped by the halo effect. Like any opiate, it also just feels good. Mmmmmmm, that’s the stuff! Also like any opiate, it is highly addictive. I’d imagine it’s even more addictive for those designers who work in environments where critical evaluation is scarce or frowned upon, or where there’s a lack of strong leadership or feedback.

So it would all seem rather bleak for designers in the face of this powerful corruptive force, right? Well, here’s some advice that might help you avoid getting into trouble in the first place.

They say the first step to recovery is recognizing that you have a process…

As with other pitfalls in design, the corruption of the precious can often be avoided by adhering to appropriate design process. This is, after all, the reason for having a design process; to help prevent problems and have a means of detecting when things are beginning to go awry.

Here is an example Web design process (but not the design process—adapt as necessary) that suggests how to avoid holding on too strongly to initially compelling ideas.

  1. Start clinically. Begin by delving deeply into inventories and constraints—things less apt to compel emotive responses.
  2. Then, focus on users; various relevant user motivations, use cases, interaction models …all balanced against popular convention, new model exploration, and client needs and expectations. Revisit the constraints and note how they may be affected by these examinations.
  3. Move on toward information architecture for the site/app. Revisit constraints and expectations and see how they impact these exercises.
  4. Stay fairly clinical by then getting into page content hierarchies, layout concerns, and the navigation scheme(s). Revisit constraints and expectations.
  5. As elements begin to take shape and concepts begin to solidify, work to maintain a measure of objectivity by searching for ways to shoot holes in your ideas. Better yet, enlist the help of colleagues to find the flaws.
  6. Save look and feel for later portions of the process and make sure that the look/feel works to lend even more context, even more usability, even more brand articulation, rather than just eye-candy or cool factor (things you may be personally enamored of). Revisit constraints and expectations.
Caveat intentio

Now, just because you adhere to this process, or something more appropriate for your situation, does not mean that you won’t get flashes of inspiration for visions of completed iterations. It’s quite likely you will, in fact. The thing to keep in mind is that while these ideas or fits of inspiration are often enticing, even seductive, they tend to lose their luster in the face of specific constraints and under the weight of likely use case scenarios. In other words, don’t relegate your evaluations to the shallow measure of subjective affinity.

True, it may sometimes seem best to allow rationalization to alleviate the discomfort of cognitive dissonance in your design work. But that discomfort is mild as compared to the agony you will know when the design you’re about to show, or that the client has approved, has no foundation beyond “I really like it.”

Subjectivity—a skilled designer’s subjectivity—has an important role to play in excellent design. Our subjective perception differs from that of other people in many ways and we must guard against forces that can corrupt it. In many respects, our clients seek and pay for our special ability to just know some things intuitively, and if we treat our gifts and perceptions and processes lightly we invite corruption. If we do this, we would fail our clients and lose our unique value as professionals.

The corruption of the precious is insidious. It lurks in the nooks and crannies of your process and it waits for indulgence on the periphery of your vision during critical evaluations. It’s powerful; it strives to beguile even the most skilled designer. Its best friends are laziness and fetish and it is often found in their company. Indifference at the presence of one will inevitably invite the others. Ware!

Just as with Tolkien’s ring, I’m not sure any designer can become immune to this sort of corruption. It is therefore necessary for you to form habits and invoke processes that help to displace the practice of holding too tightly to ideas and concepts in your work. True, it may sometimes seem best to allow rationalization to alleviate the discomfort of cognitive dissonance in your design work. But that discomfort is mild as compared to the agony you will know when the design you’re about to show, or that the client has approved, has no foundation beyond “I really like it.”

And just as with Tolkien’s story, too much of this sort of fetish will turn you into a pitiful and twisted creature who likes nothing better than to gaze raptly at your work thinking, “my own, my precious!”

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