Why do I do what I do?

A fleeting conversation has made me question why do I do what I do?

Saturday afternoon was spent in pleasant company at Tate Modern, walking the galleries and thumbing through hefty books in the shop. Conversations were often focussed on the arts and there were some very thought provoking works to see.

One of the most interesting conversations for me was with Andy Budd, where we discussed our individual approaches to design and what it is about what we do, that makes us enjoy doing what we do. Was it the end result or was it the process involved in creating it? So let me take you back a few years...

When Picasso was a nipper

I spent four happy years at art school. I chose an 'unstructured' course in Fine Art because I wanted the freedom to move between painting, sculpture, print-making or photography whenever I felt like it. Graphic design courses were for me too structured, and like many art students, I was under the delusion that at sometime in the future I would be a great painter. Oh how wrong I was.

I was a terrible painter. From the comfortable cocoon of High School where I was the arty one, I felt pitiful when surrounded by people who had real talent. Not just a few, everyone seemed better than me. And I just couldn't get the process of painting either. I remember one friend of the time who would work on half a dozen eight-feet canvases at any one time, building up layers of paint over many months until at the end of the year he had made stunning paintings. Me? I painted by numbers. I was too impatient, I wanted to see it NOW!

I lacked the big ideas too. I lacked the conceptual vision to hang a raincoat on a hanger as a representation of my absent father. So instead I made my home in the print-making studio where I became fascinated by all types of printing. I would spend weeks carving minute marks into lino or wood printing blocks. I loved engraving too. The process of print-making was actually more enjoyable than the printed end-result. It was the processes, not the art that I fell in love with.

Let's cut a cow in half

I now wonder if I enjoy web standards for the same reason? You might have read about my idiotic attention to detail in CSS file layouts, or the fact that my XHTML code must be left aligned. And it was actually not too long ago that my interest in the web was rekindled when I learned to code by hand. It has given me a focus and once again that focus is the process.

When I look around the web I see many people who are better designers, those with the big ideas. I also see many in the standards 'community' whose focus is on the minute nuances of technologies. Of course, these technologies in the end make 'web art', but I wonder if as with me, the art is merely a side-effect of a love of process? I'm sure that if I was a brick-layer, I would do what I do because of the joy of seeing the finished wall, rather than the joy of laying bricks. But I'm not a bricklayer.

So the question is, why do I do what I do? And why do you do what you do?


  1. #1 On November 17, 2004 12:56 AM patrick h. lauke said:

    i like challenges and problem solving, more than anything else. i'm inpatient, so i crave those complex problems which can quickly be turned around with a simple solution, rather than a long, tedious process. i lose interest fairly quickly, and therefore start a lot of things, but often don't finish them. that's probably why i switched from (mediocre) illustration efforts to photography - the relative immediacy of the results.

    why do i do what i do? to be honest, most times i don't even know WHAT i do, if anything. nowadays, my job title says one thing, while my passion lies somewhere else...but i often enjoy doing something that doesn't even fall into those categories. i'm probably more like a thrill-seeker...flitting from one interesting thing to the next. a renaissance man? pretentious terminology, but yes, that's probably me...

  2. #2 On November 17, 2004 03:24 AM Marilyn Langfeld said:

    Ooh, you've picked a subject near and dear to my heart! I think we designers must have a touch (or more) of obsessive/compulsive disorder to keep doing it. Of course the OCD doesn't extend to housekeeping or handwashing, just to attention to details, as you've noted.

    Mixed in with the OCD, we love to find solutions, complete projects. I don't understand how people can stand jobs where they don't have the satisfaction of seeing a final product. Of course, once the project is final, I'm ready to redesign it! CSS is great for that.

  3. #3 On November 17, 2004 08:09 AM Kris said:

    I do what I do because it is what I do best. I wouldn't know what to do if I were not doing what I do.

    By the way, the XML styled anchor at the head of your comments causes my Safari to treat the rest of the page as one big link, including rollovers. Closing the element HTML style would do the job.

  4. #4 On November 17, 2004 08:13 AM mearso said:

    I remember a conversation I once had with someone who asked to think of a time when I was at my happiest. There's some competion for that slot - wedding day, birth of children - but professionally it would have to be drawing spaceships whilst stretyched out in fornt of the telly. Lots of the subsequent work done since that time is seeking to get back to that blissfull state

  5. #5 On November 17, 2004 08:49 AM John Oxton said:

    Who knows what really motivates you to do what you do Malarkey but whatever it is, you are undoubtedly one of the most enthusiastic people I have talked to which is fantastic with so many just doin' it for the money.

    I know I started doing it to prove something to myself i.e that I wasn't just an idiot chef. Yet I still take my discipline from those days, so in hindsight it was probably about me proving to myself that I wasn't just an idiot - still working on it!

    It is very difficult sometimes especially, like you say, with so many amazing graphic designers out there but slowly I am learning to put that aside and just enjoy the processes and challenges that come with standards based design.

    Of course there are days when I wonder why I bother at all, for example having spent weeks or months putting together a site only to have the client say "yeah, it's okay"

  6. #6 On November 17, 2004 08:50 AM Matthew Pennell said:

    I like creating something that works. There is nothing like the elation when you finish debugging a piece of code, hit F5, and it works. Perfectly.

    I also enjoy the moment when you know you've written a really great piece of code - there's a section in Douglas Coupland's book 'Microserfs' where the narrator talks about writing "elegant lines of code"; when you know you've distilled the functionality into one or two perfect lines, that's a great feeling.

    And definitely agree about the OCD.

  7. #7 On November 17, 2004 10:41 AM Rubber Duck said:

    About 2 years ago I had a very deep and rather intoxicated conversation with my father-in-law, we were discussing possible future career moves and he asked the question 'So what do you want to do in your career ?' I was at the time working in a local software house as web development manager and I was seriously burnt, lots of pressure, long hours and very little reward. But the main problem was - the software that I had designed and started was finished, all that remained were new modules for clients, the idea of redesigning the UI was constantly rubbished by the 'management'.
    So to cut a long ramble short, I replied to my father-in-law 'I'm not sure, but I need to be in a job where I can create something'.
    He laughed ! But it's true no matter what I am working on, be it a clients guitar, a new furniture project, a website for Joe's Chippy or a warehouse management system for some huge global corporation. It all comes down to one thing - being able to create something and when it's finished, stand back and look at something that you have 'made'.
    Of course it is nice when you get paid ;-)

  8. #8 On November 17, 2004 11:36 AM Mike Stenhouse said:

    It seems like everyone who's commented so far enjoys the problem solving aspect, and I'm the same. Sitting down and finding solutions to coding or design conundrums (been watching Countdown) is very satisfying, and that's what keeps me interested. I love the internet: how quickly it changes and how rapidly I have to learn new tricks to keep up. I also like the fact that I can't explain to my Gran (or anyone who doesn't work in the industry, for that matter) what I do. No job titles seem to fit and that makes me feel quite smug.

    I'm a recovering Egyptologist! I did my MPhil in 23rd Dynasty Egyptian politics. Honestly. Browser bugs are positively intuitive when compared to Egyptian prosopography, and that's how I've found myself when I am now... I know that I'm never going to be the best coder or designer but that won't stop me from trying. For the time being I'm just happy to be amazed that people will actually pay me for doing something that I enjoy so much.

  9. #9 On November 17, 2004 11:59 AM dotjay said:

    I also like to 'make' things. I think I need something that keeps me interested, and with such an evolving technology as the Web, I'm kept on my toes. The problem comes with self-discipline and not letting yourself get distracted. :)

  10. #10 On November 17, 2004 12:11 PM James said:

    For me it's the challenge of making something work - finding a solution to the problem and getting back to the old "man V machine" scenario. As a child I would sit for hours and hours with my lego, building and tearing down, building and tearing down. Like you Andy, at art school I was frustrated by my lack of big ideas, and also by the amount of time it took to get things done! I too wanted the end result before I'd started the job.

    For me tho, now the biggest satisfaction is in getting it right. It's in the battle between man and machine, locked away in a dark room with my books and my little studio light, eventually to emerge victorious (hopefully :$). Mainly I like learning, and studying. I'd like to think it makes me a better person, and in a small way it does. I guess I'll never shake the need to be creative and to build things - I'm just glad that someone will pay me for doing it.

  11. #11 On November 17, 2004 12:23 PM Phil Sherry said:

    At this moment in time, I really don't know why I do what I do. Or, if I want to continue doing it. I guess I'm having a mid-code crisis. Nothing seems to make sense today.

  12. #12 On November 17, 2004 01:40 PM Phil Baines said:

    I think I do this because is keeps me interested. I love learning new things everyday, and then learning how to do something in the best possible way.

    In all the other jobs that I have tried I might enjoy them for a little while, but eventually I learn everything, and then get bored.

    I also enjoy being able to flex my logical mind and my creative mind at the same time.

  13. #13 On November 17, 2004 02:17 PM ChrisJ said:

    I too am lost like Phil Sherry and John Oxton. I'm in the web design/development industry (unfortunately at government level) and I enjoy it, but sometimes it frustrates me so much.

    I love design, and I love making designs, but usually just before I finished what I think is a good design I end up hating it and giving up. That's if I have the ideas for the details. I want to do something creative, no, I NEED to do something creative, but I feel that it's pointless. I'm trying my hand at photography, but where as other people make mundane photos into poetic beauty with a meaning, I don�t.. They�re just snapshots.

    So I'm lost. I wonder if switching jobs to a more creative sector would help - being around other creative people... if I'd still feel down, as it were.

  14. #14 On November 17, 2004 11:44 PM Jon Hicks said:

    I've been thinking about this for a while, and I've finally realised what it is that drives me.

    Something from nothing.

    One moment, there was no physical, tangible thing called 'a design'. There were maybe some raw materials - a bit of sample copy, some images. Then, moments/minutes/hours/days later, there's a physical entity that didn't exist before. Its not necessarily a work of pant-thundering genius, but its come from nowhere.

  15. #15 On November 18, 2004 12:02 AM Malarkey said:

    One of the interesting things I'm seeing here is that quite a few of you guys and gals enjoy standards in their own right, rather than standards as part of what they go on to create.

    That was really the focus of my original question and replies so far (with the possible exception of Mr. Hicks) would seem to support that view.

    Ummm, interesting... Keith Robinson wrote recently about talking more about design rather than standards. I thought that this was a valid request. But it seems that what people are really interested in is code-geekery ;).

    Now I'm not saying that that is wrong, but it does make me wonder if we might run the risk of sounding a little repetitive or be reduced to writing posts like this. :(

    I really, sincerely hope not.

  16. #16 On November 18, 2004 01:04 AM Cameron Adams said:

    I want to know what a work of pant-thundering genius looks like, and how it does what it does to your pants.

  17. #17 On November 18, 2004 01:33 AM Victor Nguyen said:

    I love the problem-solving aspect combined with the restictions the web places on us as designers. It makes us (well, me anyway) think a little more laterally and forces us to find crafty little solutions that otherwise wouldn't have been thought of in a more free environment.

    That's why I could never be a print designer. There's just entirely too much freedom. My head would explode from all the possibilities.

  18. #18 On November 18, 2004 10:30 AM dik said:

    I hate being a designer - but love being a designer.

    I'm depressed by amazing design - but inspired by amazing design.

    I feel sick when I look at code - but love the feeling when "I" make it work.

    pretty much sums up - why I do what I do.

  19. #19 On November 18, 2004 05:06 PM dotjay said:

    "But it seems that what people are really interested in is code-geekery ;)."

    I think that this may partly come from a desire for more people to adopt web standards? I mean, people have been designing, and designing well for quite some time. That's not to say that people can't talk about design, or that everything that's been said about design has been said - after all it's subjective and often abstract.

    With standards, they may well evolve, but once they're finalised, they exist. Yes, you can have subjective views towards their implementation.

    I think what I'm trying to say is that, right now, I think that there seems to be more talk of standards because there really should be.

  20. #20 On November 18, 2004 09:14 PM Ryan Brill said:

    But it seems that what people are really interested in is code-geekery ;).

    Bah, the heck with them. :p Post about design, mate!

    Seriously, though, I think a good mix would be nice. There really are very few blogs that talk much about design. I'd really like to see it become at least part of the focus.

  21. #21 On November 18, 2004 10:33 PM Neil said:

    Interesting question.

    I have a painting background too, and I found the entire 'inspirational big idea' quite a stumbling block with producing work too.

    I wonder if designing for the web is attractive because it
    allows a framework for expression, a ready to use context from which to ellaborate and abstract?

    I've found that web standards where initially appealing because it hinted at a 'right' way of doing things. I guess that is attractive when dipping your creative big toe in the murky waters of an unfamiliar medium.

  22. #22 On November 19, 2004 11:02 PM Rob said:

    I do what I do with web sites because it's NOT what I do for a job.

    Funny, but I feel exactly like you did with painting... I'm the internet guy among my friends, but feel dwarfed and humbled by almost everyone else's designs. I'll still keep plugging along; it's too much fun to stop.