Stepping Back

Every new project begins with both a seemingly limitless pool of creative energy and a siren’s song tempting the team to get started.

C’mon in! The water’s fine…

Dive into photoshop. Wade into code. The process that follows is familiar. Do. Break. Fix. Break. Repeat. It’s the hacker mindset, and it produces results. But it also produces inconsistency, which breeds mistakes, which frustrate the initial enthusiasm and turn an empty canvas into a chore. Time to breathe, step back, and take another look.

Two of the most important tools in my kit are a stack of blank paper and a ballpoint pen. Nothing special. The paper was rescued from a recycling bin with misprints on one side and empty space on the other. The pen changes regularly, but it’s usually identifiable by the marque of the hotel or financial institution it was liberated from.

Nearly every project that touches my desk starts here. Drafts of illustrations, wireframes of interfaces, even the design of schema or applications live as rough ink on paper long before incarnating as pixels, prose, and lines of code. They are not finished work. They are concise and to the point: skeletal outlines, fleeting ideas, notes on pitfalls and how they might be overcome.

From this free-flowing stream comes a nearly incomprehensible collection of notes that provide both a birds’ eye project overview and coverage of as many contingencies as possible. It’s only once the fount has begun to slow to a trickle that development even enters consideration.

Screens tend to fill with distractions, but they don’t mind being turned off—at least for a moment—as thoughts are collected and plans are made. Limiting plans to pen and ink helps minimize interruptions and the constant temptation to implement a solitary design element or small block of code. Doing is a slippery slope: the proverbial forest becomes much harder to wrangle once trees have begun to grow.

So I take things offline. A whiteboard works. At least one team I know keeps chalkboards—slate, erasers, dust, and all—along a wall in their office. I prefer paper and ink–partly for the revision history, and mostly because recycling it makes me feel like a better person–but the medium isn’t that important. The value is in stepping back, blocking out disruptions, and keeping production out of conception. Design. Revise. Repeat. Then Do.