Pushing pixels (and tools) : The internal dialogue of craft

Authors: Uday Gajendar
Posted: Fri, January 10, 2014 - 10:40:56

Even as a principal designer directing design strategy for projects, I still sometimes go deep into the pixels. When I do, I use a complex tool like Adobe Fireworks or Photoshop to vividly, precisely render a concept so it can win executive buy-in, or prepare final assets for delivery to engineers. Getting into the pixels can be very satisfying. I love bringing an abstract strategy to visceral life—colors! fonts! shadows! oh my! But this isn’t apparent to the casual observer. To, say, a wandering project manager, it seems I’m just quietly staring at a screen for hours, while occasionally making quick, subtle movements with my mouse hand. 

What this casual observer doesn’t see is what’s going on in my head, which is, in fact, much more important. The rapid, iterative cycle of reflection and creation, as I make crucial decisions on matters such as position, balance, hierarchy, and the general style—with alignment with UI and brand standards. You’re constantly shuttling between focusing on details, and stepping back to get a holistic overview, sensing how everything will come together in the end, considering artifacts you and others have produced during earlier stages of the project—flow diagrams, wireframes, and the like. There is a reciprocating engagement of mouse clicks, keyboard presses, and layer manipulations (with some cursing as well) Essentially, it’s a semi-subconscious dialogue among the eyes (sensing what’s happening on-screen), the hands (manipulating various controls to yield some output), and the mind (continuously monitoring, interpreting, judging, and deciding). I would also include the soul as a participant—the soul providing that heartbeat of passion that sustains the whole dynamic, through frustrations and difficulties you inevitably encounter, such as crashing computers and clashing elements!

The fluidity of this dialogue depends on how dexterous you are, using your chosen tool—this dexterity itself being a function of how well you know the tool and how often you use it. Also key is a kind of habitation of the problem space, laid out on the pixel grid on the screen in front of you. There is indeed a unique relationship between the designer and the tool he or she uses to push pixels, and this relationship defines the expression that designer gives to the initial vision. The master of a tool such as Photoshop or Fireworks is someone who’s practiced extensively, gauging the limitations and possibilities inherent in each situation, such that the tool becomes an extension of the mind, the eye, and the hand. The practiced designer knows in advance how to use these tools’ best features to their utmost, to make the design as good as it can be. In the course of work, even without conscious thought, this designer knows the answers to such questions as: What kind of effects should I apply? How can I best organize the objects? What techniques achieve that style? 

In the course of doing all this, the user forges a personal bond with the tool, much like a baseball player and his mitt, or a chef and her santoku knife. The designer gains a sense not just of familiarity with the tool, but trust in it, acceptance of its flaws, an ability to use necessary workarounds, and, yes, a dedication to maintaining it and preparing it for the next day’s work. (Think of keeping up with those periodic Photoshop updates, and organizing your layers neatly, to keep the files light and tidy!)

This relationship is both intimate and potent. But does it define the designer, his or her sense of self? Does the tool make/break that designer’s identity? If the tool breaks or is no longer useful, the designer can indeed experience a sense of loss, even grief, at saying goodbye to an old friend—think of the feelings of Fireworks users about Adobe’s decision no longer to update their favorite product. But the designer then moves on, to another tool, perhaps stronger and better, and in turn begins building a new relationship with it. Whatever that tool may be, the work, and goals, are the same. The designer is still engaged in shaping a vision, deftly applying his or her skills in executing and delivering work that measures up to the timeless values of great design: quality, integrity, and trust.

Pixel-pushing is an engaging process in its own right, not merely a mindless production effort, the derivative assembly of pre-cast elements. You must literally and cognitively place yourself in a certain kind of space, living and breathing your work deeply, to make full use of your creative potential, the power of your tools, and then, hopefully, get the most out of both to produce great designs. 

Posted in: on Fri, January 10, 2014 - 10:40:56

Uday Gajendar

Uday Gajendar is Director of User Experience at CloudPhysics, focused on bringing beauty and soul to Big Data for virtualized datacenters.
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