On Being Creative, Productive & Human

I have worked in the tech industry as a web designer for over twenty years.

I’ve always been active in the creative arts and have embraced all the technological changes. I’ve also been a musician all my life, though music wasn’t paying the bills. Graphic design is what I studied, as a student and I’ve never looked back. I made a precarious punt for rock stardom in the 1990s, which upset my career and livelihood. I had to retrain and somehow found my way back into the workplace.

By the time I had returned to graphic design towards the end of the 90s, Web 2.0 was beginning to take shape. I was an early adopter of HTML and learned to code pretty quickly. Within a couple of years I was building apps and websites. By the end of the 2000s I was self employed, managing my own portfolio of clients. Since then I’ve been a keen advocate for accessibility and human centered design.

A soft engineer that plays guitar

There is a crossover between music production and interaction design. I have experience as a video graphics animator too, which is a similar workflow to managing audio workstations. I record and mix all my own music and enjoy the process. I am a tinkerer, somebody who likes to know what’s going on under the hood. In my job as a designer I am interested in how software helps us to be more productive. As a musician I am intrigued by the psychology of music and the cultural aspect.

I write (or blog) about the things that make me get out of bed in the morning. Music was often a weekend pursuit, then I worked for clients during weekdays. I might have sneaked in some guitar practice between jobs. I’ve even considered taking time out to make an album. We live in a connected world, where you are free to follow your passions. The workplace is evermore flexible and we have limitless resources at our disposal.

From servant of chaos to voice of reason

I am now entering the fourth stage of my career, the last quarter I guess. For the last couple of years I’ve panicked a little, what do I do next?

We all have a sense of when a job feels like it has run its course and it’s time for a change. Although I’ve been self employed since 2010, the whole period has felt like one job. I’ve worked with many wonderful clients but I have to now try something different. Put my experience to good use, be more outspoken perhaps. Throughout my career I’ve kept quiet, followed client briefs, however flawed, and just focused on deliverables. Now in my early fifties there’s an urgency to be more of an activist.

Design is political, web teams work in isolation and brands have a top down view of web users.

Large organisations have competing factions, so websites become unwieldy and muddled to the end user. There is a lot of clock watching and desk clearing. Project deadlines are the holy grail, whatever it takes to get over the line, so we can all go home. Project managers become obsessed with spreadsheets and box ticking. Accessibility gets sidelined as unqualified stakeholders spot a cool design feature they want to shoehorn into the spec. And not surprisingly budgets spiral out of control.

I always want to provide clients with value, get the most out of limited budgets. That’s my USP, I work fast and always make the sprints. I’ve never let a client down, but have often felt as though the client has wasted an opportunity to create something memorable and engaging. I’ve felt frustrated working with badly designed systems. People generally hire me for production, the deliverables. I am brushed aside by branding agencies who wade into design projects with features that prove costly and harm user experience. I have often felt like a servant of chaos.

Welcome to the machine

I know great designers out there who are strong advocates for usability in app design. I have studied the psychology of design and human behaviour in the context of software. And I sense a growing resistance among consumers against dark patterns and sloppy design practices that make the web hard to navigate. I sometimes feel at odds with my own, middle-aged Generation X who are beginning to exhibit a resistance to AI technology. But I fully embrace AI, block chain and decentralised networks, because these systems will shape the web in the coming decades.

In the present climate crisis, how will we power an ever increasing demand for computing power?

So my need to make a change is about breaking off the shackles. I can become a design consultant or educator. However, I like to be hands-on and would feel lost if I am not making something. I can use writing to articulate my insights.

Of late, I’ve been writing a lot, running newsletters and taking courses. I am also a musician, enjoy composition and recording. There are plenty of activities that scratch my itch for productivity. And for once in my life I quite like the idea of not being subservient to the wishes of design police. As freelancers we can choose who we work with. New technology also sparks irrational fears. But I’ve always lived in the moment. Partly to make a living and partly because I like to keep busy.