At the sprint demo, one of the teams unveiled a piece of UI for the product: A time period picker that worked with accounting periods beyond the classic twelve month, four quarter Gregorian calendar. The Products division murmured when they saw the UI. Eventually, they confronted me on it.
“It’s wrong,” they said, and then gave a litany of possible solutions and vague impressions, none of which was truly helpful. They asked me to intervene, offer an alternative design. But I didn’t want to do anything.
I had given this assignment to the team’s UX designer at the start of the release cycle. I had full confidence he could drive the design and that he was fully capable of doing it.
So I talked to the designer. He came up with a whole bunch of ideas. But none of them alleviated the vague sense of unease I felt about the design. The one thing that did stick out to me was the deep blue background of the dialog. Could he try a light background instead?
No, he insisted. He’d done that already. It didn’t work.
Still feeling that uneasiness, I decided to do a full-on design review of the dialog. I looked at the functionality, compared it to the known use cases, wrote some vague scenarios I tested out on the screen, and asked whether there was something deficient or defective in the dialog.
After 90 minutes of poking and prodding, I realized there was nothing wrong with the dialog functionally. It executed every scenario well. The use cases were met. There were some minor design flaws, but there was no glaring functional problem.
So I played back Products’ criticisms and half-solutions in my head — and my own personal feelings about the dialog alongside them. And that’s when I realized that every single solution thrown at the dialog was a single solution. None of the suggestions overlapped.
General unease. Solutions that don’t overlap. A lot of vague criticism that didn’t point at any one thing in the dialog.
And that’s when the lightbulb finally came on: The problem was aesthetics.
With that in mind, I wrote an e-mail to the designer detailing a few things he could do to get this the right way around. At the center of the critique was getting rid of the blue background.
And he objected. The blue is right! The blue works! Dark colors fit the general design milieu!
Just try it one more time, I insisted. They’re expecting a dialog, and this doesn’t look like a dialog.
He dropped the blue, and quickly a new aesthetic emerged that the Products team were crazy happy about.
The blue background had too much value for the designer. He was too in love with the look to let go of it. And he needed to let it go.
The literary critic Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch spoke of the need to strip these things away:
Style, for example, is not—can never be—extraneous Ornament. You remember, may be, the Persian lover whom I quoted to you out of Newman: how to convey his passion he sought a professional letter-writer and purchased a vocabulary charged with ornament, wherewith to attract the fair one as with a basket of jewels. Well, in this extraneous, professional, purchased ornamentation, you have something which Style is not: and if you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.“
From this passage we get the phrase “Kill your darlings,” and it’s been a mantra of writers like Faulkner and Stephen King. But it’s not just writers that need to kill their darlings but all creatives. Designers have this problem, too. I’ve seen developers fight tooth and nail for a chunk of code that, while elegant, isn’t necessary or fails to handle requirements well.
When I was younger I never edited my e-mails and blog posts. As I’ve grown older I’ve found myself proofreading even the smallest e-mails just to make sure I’m not obscuring my response behind gaudy prose. In design, I am still learning to let go, but I’m getting better.
I now believe the mark of a great creative is being willing to kill their darlings with pity or regret, to understand that this is all part of a longer creative journey, and the only way forward is to kill your darlings.
I noticed during the design review that the work the designer was doing harkened back to a previous designer’s prototype that was rejected and shelved. The new design built and expanded on those original ideas. But the blue background was a carry-forward of the dark background on the original design. One designer’s darling begat another designer’s darling.
And in the end, the darling had to go. But once it went, not only did the final product look much better, it confirmed the original designer’s skills.
I have a box of Oblique Strategies on my desk. I’ve used them occasionally to break creative logjams. But before anything else, I look for my darlings and try removing them.
Kill your darlings. Only when you can kill them without pity or remorse can you move towards greatness. Great design is not about what you think is awesome. Great design is about your awesome obscuring everyone else’s need to get things done.