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Work. Don't play.

"Just play with it."
"We'll play with it."
"Could you play with the idea..."

This is one of my mega peeves. It's bad enough with someone asks me to "play with" something that's not working in a design. It's the ultimate when I hear another designer say it. "I played with it..." or "I've been playing around with..." 

Design is work. It's the kind of work that marries thought, practicality, technical ability, and personality. This means it ties up your mind, body, and spirit. All day. It's hard, complicated, and (for me) incredibly gratifying. I get to do what I love all day (and I do mean all day) , but that doesn't make it any less work. It definitely doesn't make it "play."

All my professors were constantly pressing idea of The Creative Process, in all its title caps glory. Whether we as students were required to talk through it, keep notes, or make a 40-page process deck, I found it a little bit exhaustive in my early years. Why does this matter? Who will read this? Does anyone care about thumbnails and failed prototypes? Who will even know?

The answer: me. I'll know. I care. And it matters because it happened.

Those process essays, journals, and decks had nothing to do with the professors who requested them. They had all to do with me. It taught me to build and understand the value of my work. All projects require far more than the final file. They require thought, care, personality, and hard, hard work. And being able to look back at that process is invaluable.

A professor once asked me how long a type execution took. I sheepishly replied, "Six hours." He replied, "No. This design took you twenty one years and six hours. You've been designing this all your life. This is designed the way it is because you are the way you are." And I've never forgotten that.

Now, I realize I'm leaning really hard on a simple phrase. It's easy to say "I've been playing with this design," because it takes the pressure off the often indecisive client. Our charge to "play" often comes from a creative stalemate. Budgetary, managerial or timeline conflicts arise and frustration abounds.  "Just play with it" is often the charge. And to break the tension, we agree. 

If we allow our work, profession, field and craft to be regarded (offhand or otherwise) as "play," we lose our relevance. Why would a client invest in a longer timeline for someone who spent time "playing" with the layout? Why not ask for a fifth round of changes if all you're having to do behind the scenes is "play" with the color palette? Whether intentional or not, referring to your work (even in small instances) as "playing around" creates a thought pattern that is destructive to your credibility, needs, and professional worth. If you are willing to spend time designing work that is strategic, thoughtful, and appropriate to brand, industry, and brief, do not, even momentarily, discredit yourself by referring to this hard work as "play."

Strategy and process are work. And it should always, even in the uncomfortable, board meeting moments, be referred to as such. Clients get frustrated when they can't bridge the gap between what they want and the comp in front of them, and it's quite easy to bring ease to everyone's mind with the idea that you can solve their problem by simply "playing" with things. But in order to keep yourself credible, confident, and professionally relevant, might I suggest delivering the simple, truthful solution — "I will work on this." And you will. Because that's what we do.

Amanda RobertsComment