Creativity: Thoughts about the Design Process

By Inez Giles

This article first appeared in NANthology, the NAN newsletter, in fall 2007.

Following the assignment directions for my color and, for the most part, for my design class assignments has always been easy for me. As long as there is a structure in place, I’m within my comfort zone. I successfully completed Mary Shipp’s Color Theory class and I’m currently working on my Understanding Design certificate. To that end, I sent my Section 2 assignments to Mary and began perusing chapter 3. As I read, I began to understand the assignment specifics, and a sense of panic crept over me. For assignment 3, I was to develop a design, either a geometric or natural one. The choice was mine. But the bottom line is I have to develop an original design.

I can’t do this! I’m not a designer! I’ve never done this before. How detailed does it have to be? \A/hat if I review three design books and develop a four-page critique each? How about a twelve-page paper? Would these be good substitute assignments? What in the world do designers do? What inspires them? For assignment two, I was asked to LOOK, really look, and think about designs around me. I used ad catalogues and brochures for my review. The various assignments were pretty easy. There is a natural flow and things fit together well or they don’t. I could articulate why a particular design worked or didn’t work. But it is one thing to critique someone else’s design and something entirely different to develop an original design.

I love threads and fibers of every hue and ilk. A recurring thought for me is to make a big pile of all my stash in the middle of my office floor and free fall into it letting the colors and textures wash over me! Just like when I was a kid and my friends and I would jump into piles of gold and crimson-toned leaves the big oak tree had shed. My color class assignments were fun. I found myself playing with color combinations and permutations for hours, adding a contrasting color or muting a shade just a bit to see the difference in effect.

My design assignments were proving to be much more challenging – especially the requirement to develop an original design. I found myself procrastinating. I ran errands and went to workouts purposely not making time to read and reflect on the assignment 3 specifics. But the specter of the design class assignment was always there rumbling around loosely in the back of my mind. “What will my design look like?” “What colors will I use?” Hey! How about trying to develop the design first before thinking about colors!? As you might have gleaned, I’m a major Type A personality. I love closure. I want it DONE, yesterday preferably. And on and on the dialogue went. After a week I began to panic. I couldn’t believe my creativity was so stymied! Did I have any creativity left at all?

Once I finally composed myself and began thinking about my design class as a whole, I become aware that good design is an iterative process. The tight bulb started to flicker for me, and I realized, my “Git ‘er done!” philosophy would have to be abandoned – totally. Just as I learned to edit, refine, and rewrite my Papers and abstracts, I would have to learn to edit, refine and redraw my designs. Got it. Over time and with much forethought I developed a love for the written word. Could this happen again with design? Two days ago, I was sitting at my desk staring out the window and like many times before, my design assignment “issue” came to the fore. My desk chair faces east onto thirty-seven acres of a town forest. It was early morning, and the sun was peeking through the tree leaves. Somewhere. Somehow my “Aha!” moment dawned. Almost instantaneously the design started to take shape in my mind’s eye.

My design would focus on the view from my office window. We have oaks and pines of every age and shape. These are flanked by our large rhododendron bushes in the foreground. And, of course, true to my type A personality, I would develop four designs – one for each of the season I’m lucky enough to enjoy. The Autumn palette would have gold hues as the predominant color with crimsons as accents and a few greens and browns for contrast. For Winter I would use sparkle white and icy cool grays. Spring would include the fuchsia buds of the Rhoddy and the pink blossoms of our peach trees along with soft greens which characterize new shoots and saplings. The Summer design palette would include shades of green, vivid, and intense. Oh! And then I would include our local wildlife. In Autumn, I would include our bevy of quail that feed in the back yard. Cardinals would grace the Winter design and brightly colored orioles are must haves for Spring. And last, the tow-hee family that resides in the large rhododendron would appear at the feeder in Summer. This could work!

Now to translate the ideas into reality. Filled with creative energy and “on a roll” as I sometimes say, I grabbed my sketch book and picked up a pencil without giving it a second thought. Yeah, so? You say? You don’t understand how antithetical drawing is to me. Inez drawing is like Mr. Spock being “illogical.” It just doesn’t happen. But here I was! Before I knew it, tree shapes began to appear on the paper. Light forms and outlines of leaves appeared. Do I want to fill the design with my trees, or will I allow the sky to appear? What about the trees? How tall should they be? Oh! That must be perspective. Was I beginning to think in design terms?

My pencil continued to dance on the paper. I noted that the left side of the paper felt “heavy.” Ah! My design was out of balance. I ripped off the old sheet and started anew. That’s when I noticed the rhythm and repetition my tree trunks were making. I get it! My last concern was that of space. How will I show the light appears in the spaces between the trees? There’s a depth to the trees limbs as one looks into the forest. Hmmm. I think space will be defined by the use of threads; a softer, more muted hue can be used to help define the space between trees. It was at this point I noticed I had six sheets of paper scattered about on the desk and that I had been “designing” for over an hour. Is my design finished? No. I’m busy with my grading and end of semester reviews. But I frequently stare at my design sketches on my desk and make adjustments here and there on the page. Once the semester is over, my goal is to finish the assignment and send it off to Mary for review and comment. Will I ever be a designer? That’s another no! But I’m comfortable with the process and understand firsthand what makes a design work. I understand the components of design and how to bring them together in a whole process.

As I close, I want to be sure and thank Mary Shipp for her gracious tutelage in both her color and design classes. I have come a long way under her care.