I enrolled in quite a few art classes in college, and while I enjoyed them, I never entertained the idea that I could create a sensible career out of it. I wasn’t quite exotic, quite rebellious, quite hand-rolled cigarette enough to be a painter. I wasn’t someone to break all the rules, cry anarchy or pull-off painted jeans. I also didn’t like the notion of being poor, reaching the pinnacle of my career post-mortem (if ever), and cleaning paint brushes in a cramped, aging studio.

Fast forward. While I might not live the edgy lifestyle, I do find myself back in the general field: more specifically, as a product designer here at Prolific Interactive. If painted jeans and ciggies lay just outside my comfort zone, hipster flannels and oversized glasses do not. While I was most likely wrong about all artists being poor and living a life of bristle washing, I know I was wrong about one thing for certain.

Artists don’t break the rules, they follow them.

Cubism, impressionism, pop art, hyper realism; different sets of rules, followed strictly and developed to the extreme. Create all figures by applying harsh, abrupt lines. Apply paint to the canvas using layers of short brush strokes. Use a loud palette with bold styles.

Why are rules necessary? Paintings occupy a strange realm. They are a concrete, physical presence on the wall, but not truly “real”. You cannot reach through a painting and find yourself transported and yet, a convincing painting can make you feel as if you could. Rules create structure and this structure, even in abstract work, provides the viewer with a sense of realism, a pattern for the mind to comprehend. Every great work follows a set of rules. These rules evolve over a lifetime and taken collectively, become the style by which an artist is defined.

Likewise, mobile and web applications also occupy a quasi-state of reality. We can hold them in our hands and interact with them via touch, but they are not necessarily bound by the analog world and all the physics thus implied. As designers, we must take advantage of the ability for apps to transcend these laws, but also be extremely aware that these interactions can quickly deteriorate into a confusing mess if we are not creating a consistent, thoughtful experience. In other words, not adhering to a set of rules.

The more projects I complete as a product designer, the more I realize how applicable my art studio experience is to my job today. Erin, my art professor at the time, showed me that underneath even the most rebellious, most chaotic, free-spirited work, is a well-oiled machine of technique, craft and process. Whether creating paintings or developing products, these three virtues are necessary to construct a believable set of rules that make any work convincing.

1. Technique

Erin spent the majority of class walking in a slow circle, stopping by each of our stations to chat about our work.

When she reached my easel, she asked in a politely cloaked voice, “Are you trying to create a texture here?”

Me, realizing a trick question when I hear one, tried to give the ambiguous response of, “No?”

Erin proceeded to demonstrate the magic of a fan brush, feathering away any and all visible brush strokes. Per usual, I stood there entranced as she transformed my haggard yellow layer into a perfectly smooth surface. Handing back the brush, she told me, “It’s all about technique. Without it, the brush controls you, not the other way around.” When you learn new techniques, you control the end result rather than constantly adapting your painting to accommodate only what you already know how to do. It is hard to create a meticulously rendered figure if you don’t know how to properly mix skin tones. More importantly, proper technique provides an avenue for the artist to communicate with their audience. Without developing proper technique, the audience is left puzzling over discrepancies of color, light, texture, depth, etc. No longer believable, the painting falls flat.

While the number of new painting techniques and tools are endless, it wasn’t until recently that new design applications emerged to make our work as designers more efficient, more relevant and more adaptable. By learning new applications like Sketch, we can quickly build screens and leverage common elements such as symbols and styles. With new animation tools such as Pixate, we can now be more precise with our animations and better communicate complex interaction design to our engineers. With InVision, we can now create more lifelike prototypes for user testing in order to make our designs more adaptable. These programs help us communicate not only our designs, but also the decisions behind them. Rules are difficult enough to follow as one individual painting a canvas. These rules become even more difficult to manage when the process involves a team of 8-10 people, all contributing in varying capacities. The better our cross-functional communication, the more likely we will build a cohesive project that feels intentional to the user.

2. Craftsmanship.

I began painting the background solid phthalo blue, straight from the tube. Moments later, I found Erin, staring (and/or glaring) at me.

She darted over and asked, “You’re not really just squeezing that paint out of a tube and putting it straight onto your canvas, are you?”

I answered, somewhat sheepishly, “Not anymore.”

While technique refers to a developing a skill set, craftsmanship refers to an artist’s dedicated application of their skill set to the work even at the most detailed of levels. In the example above, Erin was fully aware that I knew how to properly mix paints to create any blue I needed (cool, warm, light, dark). I just needed a reminder that the small decisions matter as each color dictates the next, and eventually, a color palette emerges and dictates the mood of the painting. While one stray decision may not make much of an impact, a series of small decisions have a compounding effect, eventually dictating important factors like mood, atmosphere and tone. Craftsmanship separates good work from great. Every decision, every color, every brush stroke has to be intentionally crafted and refined or else the work feels unconsidered.

Currently working on an Android project, I have been referring to the Material Design guidelines released by Google, supporting their newest operating system, Android L. The guidelines delve into a level of detail not previously attempted in past releases, encouraging not only innovation, but also craft. For example, the guidelines provide an extensive grid system that takes into account keylines, metrics and baseline grids. This system ensures every component aligns to an 8 dip (density-independent pixel) grid and all text aligns to a 4 dip grid, thus establishing a consistent vertical rhythm. Though subtle, this rhythm provides the user with a predictable pattern, allowing the user to spend energy on more difficult tasks such as differentiating unique content. Current trends in product development encourage the release of an MVP in which sometimes, “worse is better“. While this mentality ensures products get off the ground and can be quickly tested and iterated, it can also become the crutch by which we leave the “nit-picky” details to a later date, if at all. Taking the time to craft these micro-level details from the get-go, pays dividends in the end, especially in an era of mobile and web design that demands a consistent, device-agnostic framework, where the decisions we make in a native mobile experience will inform the rules of the desktop experience.

3. Process

Every “large” canvas appears daunting. The white space overwhelms you and the faster you cover the canvas with a color–any color–the better.

Before I had time to mask away the white, Erin dropped a ream of copy paper on the drawing table, and told us to grab any brush larger than an inch. Erin explained, “Before anyone can begin, you need to complete 15 paint studies.” In my head I retorted, “Absolutely not.” It wouldn’t have surprised me if she turned around and gave a response, given that I always felt she had a way with mind reading. Try detailing complex lace patterns with a 1-in brush on a piece of copy paper. Not. Possible. However, working small forces you to consider issues relevant to the early development of the work, like composition and color. It also leaves you free to toss ideas into the trash. It’s hard to become protective and attached to a curling, brittle sheet of paper that required no more than 20 minutes to cover with paint.

Likewise, it’s hard to become attached to scribbles on a white board or crinkled copy paper. By imposing limitations on the medium (paper, pencils, or fat markers), the focus remains on the functionality or flow that you are trying to explore, not the “pretty”. Low fidelity mockups help (force) you to solve problems fast and early, leaving you free to kill your darlings. In fact, the greatest barrier to becoming a great designer is attachment. The more we understand design as a process rather than an outcome, the better the outcome becomes. The ability to detach allows you to explore not only more of your own ideas, but also incorporate ideas from others. And when producing a product that will be handled by thousands or even millions of different users, the more ideas the better. Moreover, with every idea we are able to explore, we are able to make more and more refined choices, better tailoring the experience to our user’s needs. Rules can be crafted in both the affirmative and negative; oftentimes it is just as important what you choose to rule out as it is what you choose to keep.

A place to follow all the rules

Just as it was important to find a mentor to teach me the basics of painting, during my recent job search, it was equally important to find an environment that would allow me to progress as a designer. While I have only been at Prolific a short while, I have already been able to refine my technique, craft and process in order to create more convincing, “rule-following” products. Understanding the innovative nature of the mobile industry, Prolific encourages people to learn the newest tools and techniques, including cutting-edge software such as Sketch, InVision and Pixate. Working within the agency model has also been rewarding as I have been able to refine my craft by diving into the more subtle, platform-specific details of mobile design. Finally, Prolific fosters a highly collaborative environment that encourages an iterative design process over static, premature deliverables.

If that doesn’t convince you, and it should, we also have an amazing office dog named Teddy. Witness the cuteness here.

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