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Design Demons: The Demons at War

I received the following message from a reader:

I am the creative type. It is easy for me to focus on stuff but I find it hard to make myself disciplined. I am strict about the arts I produce though, I hate flaws and I am very detailed. But I tend to give up and tense up easily if I meet an obstacle. I start blaming myself and getting so stressed I get no work done. Is it still possible for me to pursue design? I am not a very productive person but I have concentration and passion for art. I just don't have the discipline and hard work to stick through it.

I think that the commenter can do well in design for this overriding reason: They are reflecting upon themselves and their projects. However, for now, they are probably over criticising.

The Design Demons are a good way to examine this situation. The Critic and Creative demons are fighting while the Pragmatic demon is ignored. This leads to feeling depressed and frustrated with projects.

In detail: The Creative demon has an amazing idea which the designer works on for a while but the Critic keeps saying that the work is not good enough yet. The project runs into rather normal problems and that further infuriates the Critic: “this isn’t good enough! Why can’t you do this?” The Creative demon becomes frustrated at the lack of exciting progress and so begins to interrupt with new ideas. Both the Creative and Critic are so noisy that neither pays attention to the Pragmatist demon. Eventually the project is abandoned out of frustration and the excitement of the new.

Here is a technique to strengthen the Pragmatist demon while taming the Creative and Critic demons.

  1. Maintain a list of potential projects. Record new ideas but do not act on them immediately.
  2. Set a deadline ahead of time: e.g. Today I have 3 hours to finish a project.
  3. Choose a goal OUTPUT from the list of potential projects.
  4. Execute.
  5. Post OUTPUT online.
  6. Repeat as necessary.

The focus of this exercise is on quantity of outputs with quality constrained by time. The deadline must be set before the project is decided and the deadline should be close. What tangible output can be completed before the deadline? The deadline limits the size of the idea but the designer can attempt a part of a larger idea provided that part is posted online by the deadline. The Pragmatic demon will learn to estimate project size better with practice.

The Creative demon may interrupt with new ideas so take two minutes to record the idea. Maybe the idea will be chosen later and maybe it will not. If the Creative demon stays too noisy then consider having a "No New Projects" week, or month. New projects can be recorded anytime but only projects listed at the start of the time period can be attempted. The Creative demon must learn when to be quiet.

The deadline will encourage the Pragmatic demon to challenge Critic demon: “We only have 30 minutes left, just how important is fixing this flaw?” The Pragmatist can work with the other demons to solve project problems: the Creative loves coming up with novel solutions while the Critic can iterate solutions quickly.

This article advises how the strong critical and creative designer can become a bit more pragmatic. More broadly, this article gives an example of how dysfunctional relationships between the Design demons are a useful model for examining designer psychology.