Creativity and the Digital Divide

This past June, I had the opportunity to attend the HOW Design Conference, which is one of the few times I get out of my WordPress bubble and hang out […]

This past June, I had the opportunity to attend the HOW Design Conference, which is one of the few times I get out of my WordPress bubble and hang out with a variety of designers across multiple disciplines. I had coordinated with a group of designers from around the country to stay together in an Airbnb house in the middle of downtown San Francisco, which was one of the best ideas we could have had. The coincidentally all-female group had lots of opportunities to bond and get to know each other despite coming from vastly different areas of the country and practicing different design disciplines.

I had a particularly fun time getting to know my friend Jill, a fellow WordPress designer from Atlanta. As we hung out together amidst a sea of more traditional design disciplines, I joked that it was always easy to find the web designers in a room of other designers because they were the ones in the back of the room, staring skeptically at whatever is being presented and asking, “Yeah… but did it actually work?”

And there’s a huge element of truth to this, at least in my own mind. Sitting in these sessions listening to the speakers talk of lofty goals, of beauty and aesthetic and inspiration and the greater good, I caught myself mentally rolling my eyes at the idealism of it all, and wondering when we could get back to practicality: running a design business, solving client problems, and building cool things that actually accomplish something. If I had to look at one more hipsteriffic notebook filled with spontaneous sketches or mega-artistic inspirational photojournal… god dammit, this is design, not art.

And yet I find myself looking back on this experience right now. I just wrapped up an exciting week of teaching myself how to work with (and theme for) Advanced Custom Fields, some of which can be seen on this site, other elements of which are being implemented into client sites to help them more easily manage complex content without resorting to some sort of Shortcode Madness. I was deeply immersed in the technical aspect of this, working on syntax and structure and building things. It was a great time and I felt proud when I finally looked up and surveyed what I had been able to accomplish in a relatively short time (taking advantage of freelancer flexibility is awesome).

But, as I was talking in the 3themes chat about my work, I realized… it has been weeks since I have been truly creative. And not only that, but the prospect of being creative had started to feel kind of scary and foreign to me. What was going on!?

The more I have gotten into web design and started to understand the role of development, the less enamored I have become with aesthetics. If you’ve had a conversation with me about a website lately, you’ve probably heard me say stuff like, “What it looks like is not important right now, let’s just make it work first,” or “It doesn’t have to be attractive to solve a problem.” All true, and all very important: it can be the prettiest thing ever and not be every effective. But I started to notice the little mental notes that were creeping up in the back of my mind as I got deeper into these discussions. Ideas like, “What’s the point of even worrying about all these colors and fonts and crap?” or “I can barely see where my role fits in here as a designer, it’s not like I’m doing any real work,” or “All this creative stuff is kind of stupid, it’s not building anything, it’s just slapping a skin on it.”

And then it hit me: Holy crap, I sound like a developer.

Design *is* important. First impressions matter, the color/shape/typography/spacing of an element can have drastic implications on its usability. Design invokes emotions (remember that feeling you get when you see something beautiful?) and leaves lasting impressions. Design shapes who your audience is, how they think about you, how they talk about you, how they assign value to you. This is the message I’ve been trying to spread to developers, even as I educate designers on the importance of development. But somewhere along the way of traversing this gap, I’ve lost my own message in the process.

I think part of the problem is that those of us designing for the digital world are divorced from the impact our designs are having, because we aren’t experiencing them with all of our senses. We don’t deal with the feel of a premium paper, or the smell of fresh ink. We don’t physically assemble mockups, it’s been ages since we’ve touched our X-Acto knives (for which our fingers thank us) or our rubber cement. We don’t feel the satisfaction of turning a page, of sliding paper into pockets, of opening a package, of actually handling the results of our work. But that doesn’t make it any less important.

I still believe that the development, strategy, and architecture of a website are crucial elements to its success, but not at the expense of devaluing my entire profession. And I think we as web designers need to make sure that we hang on to some of that starry-eyed designer idealism. Look at design books, watch nerdy design documentaries, obsess over typefaces, and yes, even create some mega-artistic inspirational photojournals and hipsteriffic spontaneous sketch notebooks. Maybe those speakers at the conference knew what they were talking about after all.

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