Designers are weird. Part technical. Part artist. Completely focused. We all have our processes and peccadilloes.
Here is a small glimpse into the process I normally follow when approaching a new design for an app, or iterating on a current release or old idea. Of course, this is by no means a road map. Merely a process that works for me. It can be the most rewarding and frustrating time of the design process but I’ve found a few simple steps that help me get started.
Don’t think about it
The first thing I do is clear my head by working on something else while trying to suppress any ideas I have into the back of my mind. The first rule I have about mobile design is avoiding clutter. Ideas are easy. Execution is messy. By focusing on something else I can subtly think about what I want to do with a new app without over thinking it. I learned this from reading Archimedes. The best way to have a “Eureka!” moment is to separate yourself. Some people take walks, read, zone out. I code. I pick a singular task and I start coding around it. The clearness of logic helps me design by cutting away the approaches that won’t work. Code is clarity. Either it works or it doesn’t work. I bring this into the design while I’m still in the exploratory phase. Remember, you can’t debug a design.
Look past the obvious
When I am about to start sketching, I list out every possible approach that comes to my mind immediately. Sometimes I sketch them out. Then I throw them away. Well, maybe not throw away but I at least put them aside. This is a great exercise because it usually means I’ve cleared away the obvious. The low-hanging fruit. The standard approaches. We are constantly bombarded by design in our daily lives from advertising, other apps, and so on. This can serve as inspiration but it can also limit you. I like to start past the normal limits and work my way back.
Pretend you know nothing about design. You’ve never designed an app before and you’ve never even seen one. Good. Now design what you want. Design something that improves your life. Even if it’s just for you. Then, slap the grey matter back in your head and get to work.
Pull the limits
It’s a lot harder to start safe and then get dangerous. Complacency breeds conformity. The problem is, most designers start creating boxes within boxes within boxes so when a circle comes along the immediate response is to throw it out. Especially if you’ve spent tons of time building this solid foundation around a safe idea. Grids, modules, templates, etc. will find their way. If you begin by locking yourself in you’ll never be innovative. I like to start way out and work my way back. Screw pushing the limits. Pull them to your idea.
Seek out the uninvested
The best critics are the most ignorant. Asking the obvious questions and offering simple critiques are always going to happen. It’s necessary but it’s the easy thing to do. “I don’t like that color” isn’t going to help design a better app. “Why is that button there?” might. Those are the questions my wife, my mom, or a random person on the Metro might ask. Those are the type of questions I like. The questions that come from not knowing the app or product. Not being invested in the progress of the app or the deadlines ahead. That’s how the right questions get asked because they’re honest.
Kill your babies
This is a saying tossed around in creative writing classes. You have to know when you’re lost and when to start over. I’ve tossed out designs with 20-plus hours behind them. Simply because they weren’t working or they seemed forced. Designing is a lot like playing chess. Especially in mobile design. You have to think several steps ahead. You have a small amount of real estate to design in and every choice means you are left with less choices to make. Not having to make choices seems like a good thing. Until you don’t have any. Highly talented chess players can see they’ve lost or won after the first few moves. Or at least what their probability is. The ability to identify when to kill your babies, kill your designs, is a tough choice to make. But you’ll save yourself a ton of time in the end.
This is the hardest and final step for me. Knowing when to stop. I am completely guilty of wasting time tweaking and perfecting when I know all I’m going to end up doing is rolling back to the original design. I know my designs will never be perfect. And they shouldn’t be. If it’s perfect then you can’t improve it. When I’m near the end of a design I take frequent breaks. As many as possible. This makes stopping much easier because at one point I’ll come back, look at the design, and know if it’s there. Then it’s on to the next one.