Thoughts on Engineering, Photography, and Design.

Hey, I'm Ryan Heath. I design & develop things for a living and play with cameras for fun. This is where I share my thoughts on all of that — and probably more — along the way.

Early On, Let Ideas Be Cheap

A couple in their very first relationship often don’t get married; your first job out of school is likely not where you will retire; when car shopping, buying the very first car you look at probably isn’t the best approach. There are a lot of “firsts” in life that you shouldn’t get overly attached to, and ideas are no different. Let them be very simple, cheap thoughts early on.

This may seem counter-intuitive because, in design, we’re taught to really focus and hone in on a solution. Pay attention to every detail. It’s hard to hear things like that while also working fast and somewhat carefree. It doesn’t feel like they match up.

But, effort is directly related to how attached to an idea you become, and time is directly related to effort. The more effort and time you put into an idea, the harder it will be to let it go if it doesn’t work. Visualizing alternatives can unintentionally be skewed by the idea you went all-in on. So avoid all-in up front. Often enough, a simple sketch can give you the insight into whether or not it’s worth pursuing. You can scratch stuff out, make notes, and literally try anything you want.

So, a reminder: don’t run the risk of designing yourself into a box by over-dedicating to an early-stage idea. Keep the jobs-to-be-done in mind, but at first, try keeping the effort low. It free’s the mind to explore. Once you feel like the direction you want to go in has been realized, dig in a little deeper and put in the time and effort to see it through.

One of the most challenging parts of design is breaking out of the mold and doing something entirely different. It’s hard to innovate while refining a single thought. Apple has had much success with this concept using their 10-3-1 design process.

This graphic is an attempt to illustrate why it’s important to (as the cliche goes) “step outside the box” when designing. I apologize to the original creator, as I cannot remember where I first stumbled upon this.

Fight Through the Crap

It’s typical for all designers and creative people to hit a long-lasting wall where nothing they create seems good enough. It’s a defining period of time for a lot of careers, and if you’re going to make it in the design industry, it’s important that you fight through the crap.

Ira Glass puts this in perspective better than anyone else I’ve seen, so I’ll defer to him:

Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.

Design Is Never Done

Iterations are expensive if nothing comes out of them (and yes, sometimes that’s unavoidable). But reminding ourselves that design can (and will) always be updated helps promote a flow of constant improvements, even if they’re not perfect.

I find that asking “Is this an improvement over the last version?” instead of “Is this perfect?” yields a better release cycle and (hopefully) happier users. Let’s face it, perfection doesn’t exist, even though we all use the term (loosely). Our goal should be to release, learn, update, and release to make sure our interfaces are always trying to solve the right problems the best way possible at that moment in time.

Remember, design is never done.

The journey to an end result would be a lot easier (and faster) if it was precisely known what the end result was going to be. Unfortunately, that’s rarely the case.