22nd March, 2010

Process Toolbox, part six: Creativity

We’re now on part six of The Process Toolbox, a transcript of my @Media presentation. With five parts of the process already covered, we probably need to build something at some point. So, lets think about creativity. By getting the dirty work right, we can allow more time to do what many of us really love - design and develop stunning websites.

Organic, Collaborative Process

So, here’s another thing that I truly believe in. Organic, collaborative process. What does this mean?

Organic collaborative process

Well, if a team work smartly through a rigorous process-driven route, and are collaborating as we’ve discussed, then surely any project with such a strong backbone can afford a great deal of creative vigour?

Armed with the facts, the aims, the objectives and the goals, a team will often labour meticulously to examine problems and produce wireframes, comps, or functioning prototypes etc, but before all of that (and yes, I will talk about prototyping in the browser in part eight) we can often advance a project dramatically simply by going for it here and there.

For example, either one person or a huddle of people might get ‘round a machine, fire up the apps and browsers, and just bloody go for it. Go mad. Trying stuff, throwing images in and out of Photoshop, layering stuff, messing with type, doing it all in Transmit hooked up to Textmate, testing it in browsers, iterating it, trashing it, fiddling with it etc. Intense, rewarding, blazing of problems has often produced phenomenal results for us. At the very least, its good to cut loose and just experiment.

There are lots of “yeah, try it” moments, rather than intense verbal debates over minutiae. You sometimes have to act with confidence and speed. Deal with minutiae later.

Some disagree, eager that we first work out the tiniest details before opening Photoshop. I agree with that, but I would also trust experienced designers to know when to be careful, and when to experiment. At least, a day of crazy creativity will result in many ideas, some of which will be seen through to fruition, others which might inspire or evolve with care. Either way, so long as there is a strong backbone to the process, we can surely afford to cut loose and see where it takes us.


Now, we’re making time for creativity in our process, but how do we inspire it? Sometimes it just flows, but often we might want to surround ourselves with ideas relevant to a project, or soak up inspiration in more subtle, ongoing ways.

Three years ago, Jon Hicks talked about being a “creative sponge” at @Media. Much of what he discussed related to classic scrapbooking, and is still relevant.


If you’re thinking “moodboards”, let me revisit my on-stage rant for a second. I do think that there is an unclear distinction between scrapbooks and “moodboards”. I’d like to declare that the moodboard is NOT dead. One blogger recently described moodboarding as a “desperate” technique. She said that moodboards are “insulting to professionals”. I would never tell anyone that you should or should not use any specific methods, nor would I question the techniques or ideas you use yourselves if they benefit your processes.

If your moodboards have “absolutely no point of view whatsoever” then give them a point. Don’t make moodboards for the sake of it, but make moodboards because you have a clear problem to solve, and because you think some visual stimulus will help with that. You can still do some sketching, or play with Photoshop, or build an idea out of paper. Just because you used a moodboard doesn’t mean you are a flawed designer. End of rant.

Flickr Pools

Anyway, back to scrapbooking. I’ve long used Flickr pools to invite clients and guests to contribute to scrapbooking early in a project cycle. It’s another democratic approach to collaborative design, and it’s all broadly framed, so we never have to say “Ah, that is naff, what are you thinking?”. It’s more a case of getting inside a client’s mind and seeing how they tick visually. Sure, they may then reference something they uploaded and ask you to emulate it, but if we’re smart we can simply use this to gauge their expectations and do our own creative thing as a response.

Now, since Hicks spoke in 2007, there are a few new tools out there we can exploit for this purpose. Lets take a quick look at a couple.


LittleSnapper is a brilliant tool for grabbing images, screengrabs etc on the fly, within the nifty desktop app, or the online counterpart. The in-built browser assists with taking full-screen site grabs where a human interaction triggers a layer of behaviour - perhaps a JavaScript-based expand/collapse or other choice.

Little Snapper


On the face of it, Dropbox is simple. All users will know that it allows you to manage files across several computers. Dropbox creates a folder on each machine that you simply drag or copy/paste files and folder into, and then syncs these to their storage servers.

I’m finding the sharing of Dropbox folders particularly useful. For example, I have a folder called “Colly and Greg”. Our Greg is also a Dropbox user, so I created a folder and then invited him to use it. He and I can now share images, ideas and inspirations by dragging them to that folder. It’s instant and encourages collaboration.

When you install Dropbox, it automatically creates a folder called “Photos”. Now, any folder you drag into there will become a gallery, and its contents will be browsable as usual via finder and Quicklook etc.

The cool thing here is that Dropbox will also create a set of galleries via its web interface too. So, I’ve archived loads of stuff old and new and have a smart menu of galleries at my disposal.

I can then select any gallery to view it’s contents via the web interface, or Finder on any machine. All my scraps in one place.

Dropbox scrapbook

I’ve created a new photos folder called “scrapbooking”. As I trawl the web finding interesting ideas or images I can easily drag them directly to that folder’s alias. Or, I can screengrab an interesting idea and throw that in there too.

This takes seconds, and encourages me to keep scrapbooking. The beauty is that my scrapbook will be synced to all the computers I use, so the stuff I collect at home is also in my finder at work.

It works collaboratively too, as I can share any photo folder, and provide the public link with each gallery I view. So, all my colleagues can, if I desire it, have access to my scrapbook and download any images I have collected.

Mental Scrapbooks

Briefly, lets not forget how useful our brains are at storing ideas and inspiration. I, like many, have often cited the importance of seeking inspiration anywhere and everywhere we go. It sounds trite, but music, film, architecture, fashion, graphic design, newsagents - they can all have a contributory influence in how we create for the web.

If anything, perhaps the worst form of inspiration is other websites and interfaces! The real world and culture often have so much more to tell us about ourselves.

Then, bring it all together in your collective minds, and also into the…

Physical Project Space

You can’t do it all online or store everything in your noggin. Maybe use Flickr pools, iPhoto, Dropbox etc or some other kind of online scrapbooking, but ultimately a physical project space is a brilliant tool.

Physical project space

This is beyond the mere moodboard. This is a designated space in the office where we collate sketches, cut-outs, ideas, early wireframes, iterations, magazines and pretty much anything. It acts as one big physical scrapbook and a catalyst for discussion - a place to meet colleagues and drive the ideas forward. If you get stuck, or need inspiration, look up and there is all the progress or ideas so far, like a giant storyboard. We sometimes might lay out a whole site like a magazine publisher would pre-print. Oh, and by the way - it all looks bloody impressive to the visiting client.

Note: Slides designed by Gregory Wood.

Full series…

This article was originally posted on Erskine Labs, September 2009.

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