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Designing Workflow

With the advent of digital computing technologies one of the biggest challenges to production can be the work flow. How something gets from a person’s mind to a design environment and then to becoming a reality is always worth thinking about carefully. There are philosophical debates about form versus content, but the simple choices we make for the hard and soft tools we use to design things can simply either help or hinder the creative process.

I have found in my own creative work and in teaching that the best design work flow process to practice is one that works best for the specific individual or groups involved, and is customized for their needs. Whatever creates that reality in whatever form is the proper solution, and it does not necessarily require the most expensive tools. Being creative with the way we find that “best” solution usually lets us go beyond the limiting factors of budgets and cost while focusing on what is important. A piece of paper and pencil are still very useful technologies for many creative people. And off-the-shelf software can never be all things to all people.

That's why it is important to consider all the options and create your own blended solution. Many creative people are justifiably intimidated by newer technology and the very real quagmires of minutia one has to wade through in order to just be able to determine that an application or tool doesn’t do what they want it to! It’s totally normal to feel like your time has been wasted, but it won’t be if you make note of what is missing and why and use it to inform future decisions.

A good approach to being creative is to avoid seeing technology use in any environment as an “all or nothing” proposition. There is always a process to making things and it always involves forms of old and new technology of various kinds, even if the creative person involved claims they are “not a computer person”. As strange as it may sound in this tech-heavy world, the human mind itself is still both the oldest and most sophisticated piece of technology we have. We don’t want to throw the brain out with the bath water.

The exact problem with the “all or nothing” proposition of technology use is that it assumes a few things it should not. First, it usually assumes (wrongly) that there is a fundamental (or intrinsic) difference between old and new technology and not just a syntactical difference. An example would be assuming there is a fundamental difference between drawing something on paper and drawing that same object with a digital two-dimensional drawing program on a desktop computer. There can be a difference between the two that adds value for a particular design challenge, work flow, accessibility, or all of the above. But the value added should never be assumed. Along the same thinking, the affordances we had with older technologies being supplanted should not automatically be dismissed as unimportant without consideration. In short, what we like and don’t like about any of our “tools” should be clearly identified. When we do that, we make the next evolutionary step in the process of finding tools and creating workflows easier. We turn our seemingly failed efforts to find the right tool into a small case study, valuable on its own for guiding all future efforts.

The other problem occurs as a direct result of the first misinformed assumption. The need was not analyzed or identified, therefore any customization missing in the chosen technological solution will not be correctly identified. I see this quite often in software purchase decisions made by businesses and in web development projects. Formative evaluation of the people, materials, needs and goals involved in a given project or enterprise is a very neglected part of the overall “work flow”. Big businesses with big budgets call in “logistics” rock stars to find solutions, or they will spend millions on R&D. Small businesses can still follow the same practices on a smaller scale. There should always be room for input from existing staff and resources, which may be resources that are grossly underused for that purpose. So it is important for any project to consider formative evaluation to aid tool choices prior to executing an idea.

The current state of affairs is that businesses usually adopt new technologies and the impulse is often sound but newer technology is touted as the solution to problems without actually quantifying those problems or analyzing the needs I mentioned above. This means the basic premise of the solution is flawed even if it ends up helping in the end. The result is that success of a technological intervention is often ad-hoc, after-the-fact, and the process is working backwards. In the classroom, the direct result of this problem is a pile of computers in the corner that the teacher doesn’t have time to maintain or use to their full potential.

The best way to embrace this important step in the process of building, making, and creating is to include it in the “tooling up” phase. Once we have room for evaluating our needs carefully in the tool-up phase, we can also begin to appreciate the design process as being continual rather than just a milestone that we meet and pass and never think of again. This is a missing link in many educational programs, where a student is guided towards completion, but challenges or even failures experienced are merely identified in passing along the way. It is rare that a student completely re-writes a paper, or completely re-builds a wooden boat. Time is a limiting factor, but the more important reason is out-dated conventions in training programs.

Business case studies are a great resource because they are a written dissection of the processes involved in a given project. They are write-ups that analyze a completed project from a high-level, and can provide valuable insight into the challenges associated with a specific design-production process. But with creative endeavors that involve repetition in production, or craft skills, the lack of that kind of evolutionary repetition in training can be a lost opportunity. If students are not empowered in training to “whitewash” the canvas and start over, is is extremely unlikely that their future work environments will remedy that missed experience.

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