It usually involves frantic research, endless sketching, internal debating, second-guessing, sleepless nights, next morning realizations, last-minute mock-ups and a ton of iterations until we finally end up with the solution. You can try all of the synergistic group-brainstorm-mind-mapping in the world, but we found that truly great ideas come from experience, research, and simply just persistence.
Exhausting every option
Apple designs 10 mockups for every new feature
The first thing we do when starting a project is define the problem and come up with a wide range of ideas to solve it. This forces us to get those obvious solutions out of our systems early. Something that inspires us is Apple’s “10-3-1″ process. Michael Lopp, a senior engineering manager at Apple, gave a presentation at SXSW in 2008 where he explained that Apple designers come up with 10 entirely different concepts for a single feature. After paring those 10 down to 3, they then apply all that they’ve learned from each iteration to push to one final solution.
This kind of persistence is one of the reasons why Apple has become the archetype for great user experience.
Moments of clarity
The Sears tower design was inspired by architect Bruce Graham’s pack of cigarettes
Sometimes solutions seem to pop up when we least expect them. Ideas have been known to show themselves on a throwaway sketch on the corner of a desk, an accidental push of a pixel or from a conversation during a coffee break. Take for example, the cornerstone of Chicago’s skyline, the Sears (or Willis) Tower. One of the lead architects, Bruce Graham, explained that the idea for the building’s varied-height columns came randomly while holding his cigarettes in his hand during lunch with a fellow architect.
These are the moments we can’t plan for, but are a byproduct of simply being persistent and putting the hours in.
Perfecting the execution
Stanley Kubrick was known to edit his films for up to 16 hours a day, seven days a week.
After a concept is hatched, the focus shifts to perfecting its execution. Stanley Kubrick was one of America’s greatest filmmakers. He was obsessed with perfection, and was known to be very demanding of his crew. In fact, the Guinness Book claims that the baseball bat scene in The Shining holds the world record for the most takes of a single scene (with 85).
“Instead of finding the intellectual spine of a film in the script before starting work, Kubrick felt his way towards the final version of a film by shooting each scene from many angles and demanding scores of takes on each line. Then over months … he arranged and rearranged the tens of thousands of scraps of film to fit a vision that really only began to emerge during editing.” – John Baxter, Author of Stanley Kubrick – A Biography
Kubrick was definitely a visionary, and the two traits of his I admire the most were his attention to detail and obsession with perfection.
Putting it to use
One example of how we applied this methodology was the branding for Hobnobber. After arriving at the concept of a stylized “h” that balanced between modern and calligraphic, we started to draw…and draw…and re-draw. After hundreds of attempts, we finally arrived at the right mark.
Rarely does perfection come on the first take, brushstroke, interface mock-up or line of copy. Those truly great solutions come from exhausting all options until the right one seems obvious.
And sometimes it just involves beating the damn thing into submission.