The Side-Eye: Hands-On Crafting Makes You a Better Designer #respectthemaker

I painted 50+ square chips, photographed 20 different angles of twirled paper strips, drew 30 two-point perspective cubes, and storyboarded 10 ways to catch a mouse. These are just some of the tasks I completed during my first quarter at the University of Washington School of Design.

From the outside, it seems confusing why a student interested in UI/UX and product design would spend time with this sort of coursework. I’ve noticed an underlying side-eye toward work spent off the screen that’s unrelated to tackling the hottest problems in the tech industry. However, we have to start somewhere. Now having completed the first two courses in this program, I’m wondering why there isn’t more focus on hands-on-craft-intensive projects for teaching design thinking.

Articulate the “why” behind your decisions

(Not a single composition was kept in the farthest left photograph — that’s just part of the process!)

Every Friday we pinned up our work and underwent a critique session. Throughout the quarter, our critiques got better as our design vocabulary and intuition for the fundamentals grew. A few friends in my cohort and I were casually looking at a poster in one of the buildings on campus and we unintentionally critiqued the living life out of it. It lacks a clear focal point, where does my eye go first? Maybe if they shifted the image to the left it would create a more dynamic composition. This image isn’t contributing to the content.

At that moment, I realized it’s been these collaborative critique sessions with my peers that have helped develop my ability to articulate why a change should or shouldn’t be made.

Good communication: It’s a team effort

This becomes particularly important in industry where there are more stakeholders and constraints. No longer are designers being told what to make. We now have a say in the big decisions being made. A statement by John Maeda, the Chief Experience Officer at Publicis Sapient, headlined an article:

In reality, design is not that important.

I was alarmed by this headline. After reading the article in its entirety, Maeda brings up a valuable point about the importance of not just putting designers on a pedestal but having them work with developers and other roles at companies. It’s critical to be a designer that is capable of working in a diverse team environment where productive discussions can occur.

For Color and Composition, we were assigned a hefty group project to create 9 physical + 9 digital compositions that followed color studies while conveying emotions. This was the ultimate test of our craft and ability to work creatively in a team environment. We were challenged to navigate the different skill-sets and perspectives that everyone came to the table with. Design is a collaborative process.

Iteration after Iteration

Mark Manson in his book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*uck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life makes the argument that “who you are is defined by what you’re willing to struggle for.”

The struggle of nailing a solid concept for a project is filled with ambiguity — and it can drive you nuts. I’ll take this form of craziness over any other due to its creative freedom that it enables.

Constraints = Intentions = User Viewpoint

Some of the best ideas come from experimenting with the “crazy” (vs. dwelling in the familiar and contained).

Imagine this: It’s midnight and you think you’ve just come up with THE perfect idea for this week’s class assignment. The next day you hustle to the art supply store and spend $30 on materials to execute your concept. Easily spending 6+ hours making the object and photographing it. You head to the printing room and notice the colors printed incorrectly. After reshooting your images, you pin up your prints in class. However, you leave this class critique session realizing your idea didn’t address the assignment’s task. Now you’re back to square one.

Many of our assignments in Color and Composition were physical pieces of work. This quarter, I’ve gotten better at brainstorming a diverse range of ideas in the beginning phase and not getting too attached. The challenge is thinking of what aspects can you innovate within the given constraints, problem scope, and materials. Who is your target user? What is the purpose of this? Are you clearly communicating the given concept while being innovative and creating a dynamic composition?

Stop working and look around you

After watching the Design Drawing professor’s demo, we spend the rest of the class sketching. With 15 minutes left of class, we stop working and walk around to view each everyone’s work.

You know that popular saying that comparison is the thief of joy? Well, I think comparison can also be a powerful opportunity to ignite new ideas, shift perspectives, and give a reality-check.

Whenever I walked around to view the work of my classmates, I would be in shock each time. Shocked by how far along some people got with their sketches or how genius it was for someone to approach the assignment in a different way. I gained so many new ideas and techniques after walking around to view the work of others. You can always get better at your craft, learn a new skill here and there, and push yourself harder.

Learning-by-doing

I was apprehensive about Design Drawing. If I wasn’t going to pursue industrial design then what was the point? Now having completed the class, I look back at it as one of my favorite classes. Drawing is extremely tactile and it requires you to use your gut. We were told if you think your cube looks off or wonky then it most likely is. Is your drawing readable, measurable, and actionable? The perspective drawings invited you to look at objects differently. As designers, we are challenged with the task to view the world from a different angle and use our gut to determine what makes good, innovative, and clever design that can spark joy.

Developing a gut for design

As the terms human-centered design, interaction design, and design thinking get mentioned more often in all types of industries, I see value in letting go of our reservations around seemingly rudimentary concepts and mediums. It might be worth incorporating more hands-on projects that are off the screen for those pursing design and others in computer science, engineering, informatics, and other technical fields.

Respect the maker: We’re never done exploring

Margaret Gould Stewart, VP of Product Design at Facebook, is a prominent figure in design and tech. Her Medium article “Respect the maker: How to weave creativity back into your day-to-day” had me nodding in agreement throughout the entire read. She shares her knitting injury (which I mad respect as someone who has too many hot glue gun scars from intense crafting projects) and the pivotal role creativity plays in her life. I highly recommend giving her article a read if you’re stuggling to carve time for creativity. It’s refreshing to hear a woman in tech and design highlighting the value of getting crafty and embracing the novice of it all.

“All humans, especially creative professionals, have a deep, spiritual need to make things. Life doesn’t often afford us time to do so, but we owe it to ourselves to carve out opportunities for hands-on creativity at work and at home. This is how we stay engaged, inspired, and energized by our work.

And as design leaders, we can inspire our teams to do the same and to respect the makers within us all.” — Margaret Gould Stewart

When I work off the screen I’m transported to a flow state of mind. I become hyper aware of my craft and the fundamentals all become heightened. From printing samples of work, taping it to the wall, and standing across the room to see how the composition looks, I can experiment with different physical mediums. Suddenly, the pursuit of learning new techniques becomes less intimidating.

Take the time to support designers in your community

The best part about being in a creative community is the exchanging of Photoshop tricks or shocking each other with skills we individually think are nothing special. In design school, you aren’t given a textbook with all the answers and concepts in it. Sometimes you learn on the fly.

From viewing the works in progress of the UW design masters students to a workshop hosted by Facebook Product Designers, there are many opportunities to learn from those within the community. These eureka moments extend well beyond those last 15 minutes in my Design Drawing class. I’m always on the lookout for ways to develop my craft and pinpoint white spaces in my projects.

A gradual but mighty crescendo

If anything, I’ve gained a glimpse at just how nuanced the role design plays in creating innovative solutions and tools in technology.

It’s a messy and chaotic process to create a simple and elegant final product.

Within these past 11 weeks, I’ve developed a slightly better framework for how I would approach problems as a designer in a room full of PMs, engineers, marketers, and researchers. There are 8 quarters left to this gradual but mighty crescendo towards completing the Interaction Design major at UW.

These hands-on projects might appear crafty and disconnected from tech or important issues in the world. However, the design process and skillsets that I’ve developed through these types of projects have equipped me with the necessary tools and frameworks to address the ambiguity in scenarios with constraints beyond my class assignments.

Rethinking the power of crafting

Going off-screen and being intentional

Crafting has a bad rep. Similar to how our Facebook Newsfeed is borderline built upon old-school newspapers, there’s value in developing our understanding of UI/UX and product design while not looking at widgets on our laptops. With assignments like creating something that uniquely communicates Josef Alber’s simultaneous contrast phenomenon, the challenge is to think outside of the box… or think outside of the computer screen.

Alexandra Lange, an Architecture critic at Curbed, expresses concern in The New Yorker article “Don’t Put a Bird on It: Saving ‘Craft’ from Cuteness”:

Even more revolutionary would be to make television out of the unconsumption movement. For financial and environmental reasons, many people have stopped buying more things. “Craft Wars” seems unbelievably wasteful; contestants are essentially buying new things to hack and cut and paste into something no one will likely ever use. What about a “refashion” challenge, using clothes or furniture thrifted from the Goodwill? To make the word “craft” mean something again, to make a show with some soul, the producers need to explore the dual meaning embodied in that William Morris quote: skillful, but also skilled in making it work.

Lange challenges the crafting community on the TLC summer show “Craft Wars” to not just put a bird on “it” for the sake of it looking cute. Rather, we should be intentional with what materials we use and our motivation for creating things. I think the side-eye is partly rooted in the familiar Pinterest-kid-friendly-context of hands-on crafting. There’s value in removing this connotation because expressing our creativity, balancing challenge and skill, outside our typical mediums has positive health benefits as Margaret Gould Stewart discusses in her article.

In 6th grade, my English teacher made us create a scrapbook titled “Who Am I.” Providing snapshots of a poem I wrote as 12 years old as evidence to show just how obsessed I was with making things.

There’s something magical about being in the Art Building on campus. We share it with the Art and Art History students. Its open ceilings in the studio classrooms, imperfect infrastructure, and beautiful artwork covering the hallways make my heart full. Again with Mark Manson’s point about struggle, I personally can’t think of anything more exciting, challenging, and important than the ambiguity that comes with design.

The “maker” within you

How are you going to carve out time for creativity in your career? What’s the most recent hands-on project you’ve done? Do you #respectthemaker within yourself? Maybe stop by the local craft store or take out a stack of old magazines and make something.

Seattle based writer and interaction designer who connects the dots between design, contemporary art, & pop culture. yuna-shin.com. Subscribe to my newsletter↓