One of the biggest mistakes I see people making in theme design is not editing their work. A large part of being a designer is about training and channeling that inner editing voice. Being a good editor of your work is a strong tool in your design kit.
Showcase sites are both a blessing and a curse. For some, they have a the same effect as a candy shop to a sugar crazed child. Eyes glaze over and before you know it they are licking on a drop shadow and chewing on a gradient. Simply copying styles that are in and stitching them together with a hope and a prayer doesn’t create a great theme design. You just get a mess.
“Cream colored ponies and crisp apple strudels Door bells and sleigh bells and schnitzel with noodles
Wild geese that fly with the moon on their wings
These are a few of my favorite things”
– My favourite Things from Sound of Music
Design techniques are that ‘techniques’ not design rules. You don’t have to use them all. Diversity is great – I’m not arguing against it. However, learn when to use something and, more importantly, when not to.
Every design needs a process
Theme design like anything needs a ‘design process’. This is where you edit and evolve the design into the final theme. Loosely you could see the theme design process as this:
- Mood boards
Editing can (and should) happen at any point of the process. You can help this by building into your process key points for editing.
It’s probably worth noting here that I do not advocate against a ‘free design’ phase. Part of my own design process allows for this where I explore things and let my creativity have free reign. But, that’s the key – it should be part of the process. I’m not saying design by numbers, far from it.
I have a process that comes in distinct phases.
- Mood boards
Some may wonder why I have included wireframes and mood boards as part of my editing process. I consider them an important part of this process as they are the first point I start thinking about what goes in and out of the design. They are the starting blocks of my dual process of creating and destroying – which is what designing should be about. As I move through the process I take time along the way to have significant amounts of reflection then action in the design phases. A reflection stage for me is when I step away, let the design sit perhaps for a few hours but more often for a few days. Every project I work on I ensure I budget in time for this process.
I do a variety of things to help me reflect:
- Change of scenery – view it from a different screen or room. Put some music on, change the mood (fun fact: I fairly often make a playlist for a design I’m working on) and yes I have tilted my head to look at a design from time to time.
- Ask questions – Is the path obvious for users? What is the focus attention and is that the right one?
- Make the design black and white – Sometimes colour and styling can get in the way so frequently I will just pair it all right back to monotone.
- Focus in – Often I will zoom in quite far or block off areas of the design to help focus my eye.
The last part of the process is the ‘sanity check’, going back through the Mood boards and Wireframes, maybe even making revisions of the design. I check that everything is on track and that more refinement stages aren’t needed. If they are that’s just the way it is. I do not set a limit on how many times I go through this process. Typically for sanity reasons and to prevent dithering and self doubt I try and keep it to around 3 design and 2 reflection processes. I find that number usually hits the ‘sweet spot’ for me.
As I develop a lot of my own designs often I continue the editing process into the development phase. I find this actually incredibly useful and would encourage any designer to even if it’s a mockup start working in a two stage process. I would even advocate for some projects diving straight into a real world mock up as part of the design process is of huge benefit – a topic to discuss on a different day. It all depends on the structure of the project. The process I have of creation and reflection transfers easily to all structures.
Let your design brew
An important aspect of any editing process should be reflection. Leave your design, come back to it with a fresh set of eyes. Never be afraid to stop and come back to a design. For me this is a really important part of any design process.
It’s important to create multiple revisions and to save each step of the editing process. I often find in my ‘reflection phases’ that I go back and look at the past saves of the design – even in some cases bringing things back or adjusting based on those.
A designer is a planner with an aesthetic sense.— Bruno Munari
Time is a valueable commodity in your design. Learn when to step away and when to contemplate. See your design like bread or tea. Leave it to prove, to brew and come back to a richer design.
Ask questions of your content
I believe that you should be your own harshest critic when it comes to your design. Decluttering needs a firm attitude with yourself. Treat yourself like a design hoarder and banish the clutter from your design. If it helps have a series of questions and ask that of each part of your design.
There is no design without discipline. There is no discipline without intelligence.— Massimo Vignelli
Editing requires both discipline and intelligence. It’s easier to throw everything blindly at something than it is to sort the ‘wheat from the chaff’ in your design. The easy route never gets a good result though. I won’t lie, editing is a hard process to go through. When you create you may think something is the best thing you’ve designed – in the cold light of day it turns out to be the worst. That’s a hard truth, but a valuable one.
Remove to reveal
As you subtract, the true nature of the design is easier to see. It’s easier to focus on what is important for the design and remove what gets in the way of that.
A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.— Antoine de Saint Exupéry
Learning what to remove, what to refine is the key to becoming a mature designer. Never loose sight of the goals of the design. If something gets in the way of that get rid of it.
Nurture your editor
Your inner editor is your key to becoming a better designer. Never let it get lazy or accept things. Always question the work you do and always give yourself time to reflect and develop a design. Yes, deadlines happen but you need to as a designer plan around those. However, set boundaries to that editor. With training and a proper process you can avoid endless reflections and pixel poking. You can transform your inner editor into a useful and swift voice of reason.