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What creative hobbies have taught me about UI design

UI design is a creative job. Although it's much more constrained than other artistic activities (e.g. painting or pottery), there’s still a lot of scope for creativity. 

Recently, I began thinking about what other creative fields have in common with designing digital products -and whether or not I could apply techniques and concepts across disciplines.

Photography

When I started learning about photography, I read about composition, balance, and energy. These are all present in a user interface too, (although energy/direction is less important).

In the past, my mind was often concerned with questions like “should I make this margin 4 pixels or 6 pixels wide?”. Photography has helped me to always step away from the screen now and then and consider the design as almost an object of art - what would people’s impression or emotional reaction be? How symettrical is the whole?Are the colors balanced? Where is the eye drawn to?

Sometimes, to improve my photography, I’ve focused on one thing at a time (for example, using a specific lens, or only taking landscape shots). My second lens was a prime lens (I couldn't zoom with it) - suddenly I had to “zoom with my feet” and learn to quickly size up distances and whether or not I had enough space to jump in front of something.

When visiting Hong Kong last year, I focused a lot of time on street photography, which helped me to anticipate what was going to happen and find a spot where I could capture it unfolding.

I’ve done this in the past with UI design, by focusing intently on improving my knowledge about a specific sub-discipline like typography or color theory. While I don't always directly apply this knowledge to my subsequent work, it has often filtered back into my other designs in small ways, improving the overall quality of my output.

Photography has also helped me to think more objectively about my design process. Every amateur photographer knows you need to take a LOT of pictures to end up a good one. Typically, 1 in every 100 photos I take is good enough for me to want to print it. Even working the same scene 20-30 times, trying out different angles and compositions sometimes yields nothing good.

With UI design, instead of a perfectionistic approach, I now consider designing as more of an exploration of ideas, a reflective process. If I can’t think of a good solution immediately, I try to generate many ideas, pick one that feels like progress, and create more variations of that one.

It becomes a method of discovery - the pixels are already there, I just have to find the best way to put them together. It’s why we have exercises like 8-up sketches. It’s a much more energising and effective way of creating than sitting down and trying to force out a single high quality idea.

Music

I’ve been playing music for years - I produce electronic music, DJ, play guitar and ukelele, and sing.

One thing I learned early on in music was the value of repetitive practice. Consciously repeating the same motion over and over again, getting it perfect, and wringing all the musicality you can out of it all force it to stay in your muscle memory.

When I first started designing many years ago, I of course used Photoshop. I spent so many hours in that application that I started creating my own keyboard shortcuts and really mastering everything. Over time, I became a better designer simply because I was able to create ideas faster - there was less friction between the concepts in my head and how quickly I could bring them to life before I forgot them.

From producing music, I also learned the value of watching highly talented people work to my own creative abilities. Producing music is pretty hard, and for a long time I could get nowhere near the level of depth, wideness, and clarity that professional tracks have. One thing that helped me immensely was by watching videos of very talented producers working and talking about their process. I would see the little tricks they used and what they ignored, copy them, and immediately improved.

This is applicable in any field, but is especially easy with design. Want to know how to easily version control your designs? Just watch some videos on youtube of someone who’s been doing it for a while and copy them. How about choosing a great color palette for your project? Just watch some designers at work in their studios talking through their choices, and you’ll learn what considerations are important under which circumstances.

My musical interests have also taught me that my creative process differs project-to-project. For example, when I’m producing a track, I sometimes spend a very long time on one part, without much success. Other times, everything just flows. With design, sometimes it’s hard to narrow down to the best idea, and other times I put in a lot of effort and none of my concepts feel like the right ones.

What can we learn from other creative professionals?

I also started researching other people’s creative processes, and found some common themes.

Many highly talented creatives focus intensely on a problem or piece, then give their minds rest by doing mundane tasks like showering or driving. The insights or new ideas they couldn’t find while working come to them during these rest periods. I’m trying to adopt this practice by trusting my intuition more - and dedicating time to relax!

Many artists, photographers, musicians and writers also agree that you need to feed your brain a lot of raw input for your unconscious mind to have material to play with when generating new ideas. It doesn’t just involve consuming other people’s work. It’s an active process involving learning the patterns of structures, and ‘playing around’  - adding, extracting, and recombining elements from an existing artefact. I haven’t figured out how to apply this approach to designing user interfaces yet.