Creative Gap

by Jin, 04-16-09 // 16 comments

Last year I read a very inspiring article by one of my favorite photographers, Chase Jarvis. In his article, Chase talked about “Creative Gap.”

The term “creative gap” is a way of describing the difference between what we as artists can visualize ourselves creating and what we actually create. Sometimes we nail it and the gap is nil. Other times, as you might imagine, there’s a huge disparity and the gap is wide. Whether we lack vision, skills, timing, whatever – it can get frustrating to set out to create a masterpiece, and settling for a different kind of piece, if you know what I mean. You envision it like an Edward Weston, but what you get is more like an Edward Scissorhands. – Chase Jarvis

As a web designer, I can definitely relate. Over the years, the gap for me has narrowed since when I first started my career, but has not completely disappeared. At times, I still reflect on what I could’ve done differently after a site is launched. Drawing from experience, here are a few tips I’ve learned to narrow that gap, ordered from general to specifics:

Be Versatile

A manager I once worked for referred to web designers as “jack of all trades, master of none.” As ignorant as his comment sounded, I have to say at the time(1996) it was justified. Our role was a rather unique one – people who sported the title “Web Designer” came from different backgrounds: print designers, multi-media designers, programmers, marketers etc. I do not want to get into the discussion of “should designers code,” but I want to stress the fact that the more you know, the more it helps with your design. If you just spend several hours every week learning about client/server programming, over time you’ll gain the knowledge of whether a certain design element is feasible to implement or not. Know the importance of accessibility and usability. Not only this helps your design skills, but also makes you a more marketable designer.

Be Resourceful

There are tons of design resources out there today. Even if you’re a fervent blog reader, do you actually fully utilize what you read? Come up with an organized system for bookmarking useful resources you find, that way you’ll retrieve them easily when you do need them. I use delicious and stumbleupon for bookmarking.

If you have a lot of design blogs in your RSS reader, create different categories for them based on their specific type of content. If you follow other designers or programmers on twitter, take advantage of the “favorite” feature too. Do tutorials if you have the time. But keep in mind tutorials are about the process, not the end result.

Learn the Business Side

When you take on a project, learn the business behind the client’s site. This doesn’t mean a mere requirement gathering. Pro-actively, ask about the day to day operations, what kind of goals they would like to accomplish through their site. Pretend that you’re part of their staff and see things from their perspective. This helps to align your design decision to their business goals. Often you can’t just learn everything from a static list of “business requirements.”

Avoid Lorem Ipsum

To me Lorem Ipsum is a crutch. It’s easy to use it to come up with a perfectly laid out design. Copy is an important part of the design and is often ignored. Having the real copy early on helps you to see a better picture. Sometimes the clients may not have the copy ready for you when you’re starting a new site. This is why learning the client’s business operations is important. You can help them to come up with text that’s most effective for the site’s purpose.

Test Extreme Cases

This should happen during the layout phase, whether you’re sketching with a pencil or in software. Try your menu link items with various text lengths – do they still fit? How about adding two or three more links? If your design’s aesthetic is dependent on grid alignment, what happens if there’s very little content or a lot of content in one box? Planning ahead and making sure the design is flexible and scalable will save you a lot of time down the road.

Sell Your Design

I find the biggest challenge always comes down to a people problem. When the client wants to change a particular color, layout, or a stock photo, what do you do? Some designers have the mentality that since the clients pay the check, then do what they want. A servile attitude, so to speak. By doing so, you’re diminishing your authority and expertise in client’s eyes. You need to be able to justify every single design decision you make to the client. One way to get around the “design by committee” problem is to re-iterate to the client what the goal of the site is. If they are aware your best interest is for their gain, then everything else is simply a means to an end. Focus on the end users of the site; often, your clients are not the end users.

Don’t be Afraid to Start Over

Some designers tend to be attached to their initial design, especially if they spent a great deal of time on it. They eventually find themselves putting band aids on something that just doesn’t work. Re-evaluate the design, in the most subjective way.

It’s also possible that during the design process, you find new or better techniques for the implementation. Starting over will save you time later, and it also produces a better end result.

Learn From Your Mistakes

A man’s errors are his portals of discovery.
– James Joyce

No project I worked on was ever flawless; there’s always something to be learned. With every lesson learned, one less mistake is made in the future.

Share Yours

How do you narrow your creative gap? I’d love to hear it. I’ll end this post with a video of Ira Glass (This American Life).


also feel free to contact me on twitter or via email
Aaron Irizarry 04-16-09

Great read! I really agree with the idea of learning the business side, I have found it to be so useful in creating something that really captures the business. Not to mention the fact that it creates a great starting point for the design process.

Really dug this article man!

Aaron I

Janko 04-16-09

You’ve said it all, I can only agree with everything written.

One thing I believe in is that narrowing is a continuous process. A gap will always be present – no matter how much you narrow it. Internet is everchanging place, technologies, tools and trends changes. also People as well.

Dmitry 04-16-09

Great post. Lorem Ipsum is handy sometimes, but I never lay out the site using it — real content is just a lot different, especially if it’s not a marketing site but some interactive site where users are going to contribute, in which case it will be nothing the nicely laid out Lorem Ipsum text — e.g. blog design; when working on the comments design make sure it looks good with 1 line comments. People aren’t going to write nice paragraphs and instead will write short comments with pasted links and such. This is actually what 37signals call Epicentre deisgn — you start with content, real content, and then build the interface and your design around it. That’s opposite from making a beautiful “shell” and then filling it in with content. Content is more important anyway, so if you don’t have it, work with the client to get it, or at least draft something out yourself quickly.

Anyways, back on topic. You could approach this creative gap issue with some Japanese philosophy of Wabi-sabi — that is, nothing is perfect and ever complete. If you see beauty in imperfection then this creative gap might cease to exist because the imperfect thing you build will be perfect in your eyes anyway.

Be versatile.. I’m just completing my javascript api called Very Versatile Electronic Document, I jsut found that kind of amusing.

This article was a little misleading, I thought it was going to deal more with not being able to create what you visualize in your minds eye. Good article anyway.


Jin 04-16-09

Thank you for the comments.

@Aaron, I feel that by trying to learn the business, it shows that we *care* about the client, than just providing technical work.

@Janko, That’s very true. I think sometimes the gap is fine. It’s not a strict measure of the success of the final thing.

@Dmitry, totally agree that when designing a dynamic content, the challenge of layout is great. Especially when the content is there when you launch the site. e.g. community submitted news, AD space, etc. I remember reading about Wabi-sabi in your SM article. You’re getting Zen on me :) But I know what you are saying. And I think it’s a different thing from not doing our best. I rarely try to be “perfect,” since it’s so subjective, even according to my own taste and standard.

@Anthony, thank you. This article is about from visualization to making it happen. During the process, I believe the points I listed(at least from my experience) are what prevent it from happening. But some of the factors aren’t always of negative. For example, I have dealt with clients whose input made sense, therefore my design changed.

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kyle steed 04-17-09

Great read. And what a wonderful video by Ira Glass. I really appreciate you sharing that with us. I take to heart what he is saying, because I think I’m in that stage in my life where I know where I want to be but the work I’m putting out there is a hodge-podge of other’s influences and my own lack of experience. So as I continue to mature and develop my own unique style I am all the time bridging that gap.

One last thought, pertaining to the business side of things. Last night I met with a client, a friend of mine, to discuss a new website project. To sum the night up, I spent almost a total of 3 hours at starbucks, almost an hour of that was waiting on him. And then as the place was closing up we were finally wrapping things up and ordering the hosting plan for him. But as I drove home I felt disappointed with myself that I didn’t have a more structured approach to that meeting. It felt very disorganized and all over the place. But I know this is just one step along the journey to becoming an awesome “independent” web designer. And I can’t expect myself to get everything perfect on the first, or second or tenth, try. That old saying still holds true, practice makes perfect.

Steven Clark 04-17-09

Ahh yes the manager with the favourite colour – we’ve all got to love that guy / gal… in public sector work this is incredibly ingrained to the point the phone constantly rings throughout each and every day complaining to the head designer – move that widget 2 pixels left, oh can’t that just be a shade lighter… very frustrating.

I think you caught the biggest point of all – you’re hired for your expertise. Imagine if you hired an architect, doctor, or even a tailor, even a baker and started demanding your way or the highway… they’d show you the highway every time. The web designer needs that same confidence. Because this one comes up constantly…

Unfortunately, what people generally see of our work is an interface (the visual website)… so after a while of familiarity they believe it’s actually really simple and we’re overpaid and probably redundant. What they need to realise is that it looks simple because we used expertise – someone like them could have learned Dreamweaver basics but without the expertise what would be the outcome.

Any business should assess it’s site on business terms – does it meet goals and objectives? This is the one that dumbfounds me because it shouldn’t be us selling that idea to business, they should be insisting on it themselves from the get-go.

When some manager turns up with their favourite colour we need to just say, hey I know you “like mango” but the idea of this site is actually to make money and / or increase market share. Then offer to help them create (for a fee) a private blog in mango, if they so wish… lol.

The expertise of design is also defined on the continuum where one end is the capability of the user and on the other end is the complexity of the issue. As a designer your expertise is in bridging that gap so the user doesn’t realise their deficit in skills.

Great post Jin.

Jin 04-18-09

@Kyle, thanks. I think we all go through the phase Ira talked about in the video. I’m a huge fan of his show. One thing he said that really hit me, is passion. Passion drives me. I took up photography last year. I’m far from any good, but I love it. I know eventually I’ll get better, and the learning process is the most fun to me.

@Steven, you’re dead on about the visual side. I think, as I mentioned to my friends before, design is one of those things that requires no expertise to cast a “criticism”. You just need a “belief.” That’s why a lot people simply use their personal preference when it comes to critiquing, instead of focusing on the goal of the design. This is where I think design and art differ.

Steven Clark 04-18-09

The most frustrating thing with dealing with managers who have no exposure to design at all is that quite often they want to piss on the post before they leave the room… so even if they like it they somehow expect to make a little alteration that says they’ve been there… often that favourite colour comes to mind.

But more often than not it has everything to do with the calibration of their own monitor, or the age of the one they have at home, or other factors that influence the RGB they’re seeing.

Which is kind of why I’m doing an MBA at the moment. I’ve been extremely frustrated working for managers, public and private sector, who really have no idea. One guy in Sydney had every client’s account inside his single account, for example, and he had them all set to world read write access on a Unix box. I said WTF? And he asked what read write access was… now it’s hard to work for people like that because whether its design or technical, they become obstacles to success even though they’d fire your butt rather than admit it.

But finding the balance in a team is hard too… my last team leader was a designer (from print design) and she didn’t take critique very well. It would be nice to find a balance.

Ahh if only I could find time to get out with that D90 Jin, the months are ripping away so fast.

Robin 04-18-09

I agree with everything you wrote EXCEPT the case of LOREM IPSUM. If we designed that way at our company, the end users who have to approve the design would spend a lot of time quibbling about the content (that they haven’t provided) rather than looking at the framework that we have put together for them. It’s the same idea of having too polished of a prototype. Rather than them looking at say, the navigation schema, they are too busy telling us they don’t like the color, when clearly the color is far more trivial than the navigation.

Steven Clark 04-19-09

The real trouble with lorem ipsum is that text content is “most content”. So when you’re working with lorem ipsum you nearly always make a generic pretty container but it isn’t “information display” as tufte would put it. The content is what you’re designing, it’s not just superficial text thrown into a project and that’s a critical mistake many manager’s make for some reason.

Ah we’ll just throw a little text in there later, she’ll be right.

But when you think about it, what’s the page about? The content. Maybe content isn’t king, but it’s the crown prince at least. Content has shape, texture, meaning… it’s part of the design in my opinion. We have a young industry and I’d think more and more this will become obvious to web project managers.

Unless, in the end, their goal is just to make a bunch of pretty CMS containers for their logo to shine on – then you can see the result on many a public sector website for that strategy.

Dmitry 04-23-09

Exactly Steven. It’s like a painter starting to work on a portrait, but instead of doing the actual portrait he begins by building the frame… spends hours, days, or weeks building this beautiful golden frame and then, at the last minute, mocks up a quick drawing and throws it in. But really, the frame is irrelevant. A good painting is a good painting — a good frame will only help present it better on a wall, it alone isn’t going to make it great.

Designing websites shouldn’t be about building frames. It should be about drawing the painting — i.e. understanding the actual content and then deciding on the best way to present it. It’s all about communicating content and facilitating user interaction. You can’t do that with Lorem Ipsum, because Lorem Ipsum isn’t content, it’s a filler. Filler is only useful when polishing off the aesthetic, but won’t help you do the key element of building a website, that is, actually choosing what content to present and how to present it.

Robin: Just a question, not a criticism/counterpoint — why don’t you work with real content on your clients’ websites? For example, if you’re making a website for a blog or newspaper, why not use one of their articles as the base for the design? It’s real — it’s what the rest of their stuff will look like + they won’t care about it because they know it’s their stuff so will focus on how the design works with it. Same thing for any other site; for example, a marketing site, you should have the copy in place before you start the design as it’s the key element that’s going to sell. I’d be interested to hear why you disagree with this to learn more about your stance. Thanks.

Mike B. Fisher 04-23-09

I’ll second the notion that avoiding Lorem Ipsum is tough.

It’s great to design sites around the content when possible. But I find that more often than not content and design must occur in parallel rather than in series. So while it’s true that working with some semblance of “real” copy is better than designing with Lorem Ipsum I don’t think it’s a realistic goal in most cases.

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Nice read. I make sure I give my clients concepts that work, not necessarily what they asked for. I tell them some things are a matter of opinion, other things are a matter of fact. For example, in logo design if a client says that a bird I’ve created looks like a fish – that’s a problem, and I make a change. If a client says, “I like blue not red” I tell them blue is better because xyz and stick with blue.