In the Flow

For designers, sometimes it’s good to ignore the details.

Photograph by Neven Raja Samara

There's a common adage in mountain biking that it’s safer to ride fast. Momentum allows you to roll over things that would stop you cold if you were moving slowly. The same could be said for the creative process. When you work with deadlines, you often have to work fast. There’s no time to stop and be introspective or to question ourselves and worry that we’re making the correct decisions. Time pressures force us to go with our gut, just as velocity forces mountain bikers to go with theirs.

“Going with your gut” sounds like an offhanded way to approach something, but the more practiced people are in their profession, the more often their instincts are right. This is what athletes and creatives call being “in the flow.” Flow is the result of natural ability combined with practice and skill acquisition. When people are at their best — when they are truly in the flow — they can get out of the trenches, see beyond the next bump in the road, and look holistically at a landscape.

So how do you find flow? According to author Richard Sennett, you practice — a lot. In his book, The Craftsman, Sennett, who is also a professor of sociology at the London School of Economics, writes that humans require 10,000 hours of practice to achieve technical mastery of a given skill such as carpentry or playing a musical instrument. Sennett says that until you hit that mark of true craftsmanship, you’re focused on the mechanics and the minutiae of the problem rather than the whole picture. You’re basically trying your best not to mess up.

When you get in the flow, however, you’re not worried about a single element of a project or a skill set. The master craftsman defines and owns the overall vision by understanding the complexities in the connection between elements. As the philosopher Michel Foucault writes, “The map is about the relations between sites, between people, between objects.” Getting from point A to point B is not about simply plotting coordinates — it’s the intuitive awareness of how to move through space, where the route may (or may not) take you, who you’ll encounter along the way, and how to use all of this knowledge to craft your narrative of the journey.

For designers, getting in the flow is a good goal to have. If we focus on relationships rather than moments in time we can better achieve a holistic view of the world surrounding any object of focus. This in turn allows us to gain a deeper understanding of a design problem.

At the same time, it’s necessary for even the big thinkers to get down in the trenches sometimes, to ground-truth the environment and maintain realistic assumptions of the lay of the land. Empathy is critical to design.

To facilitate flow in iterative design, stay fast and agile for as long as possible. Slowing down breeds indecision. Also, delve into process when nearing completion of a project. Like a skipping stone, you can cover a much greater distance by traveling quickly before diving deeply. With practice you can improve your throw and increase the number of touch points along the way.

Lastly, don’t demand perfection at every juncture; it’ll just slow you down. The initial goal should be the best strategic result — focusing on tactical aspects such as the perfect radius or your type choice before you’ve gotten your story straight is a huge mistake. Narratives should flow — avoid tripping points or gaps in the story unless you need them to drive home a point. There’s nothing more disquieting than a presentation that ends in a cul-de-sac with the audience wondering how you got there and why.

Flow is the journey, not the destination. You may go down the path of least resistance, but that may not always be the right path. Flow is useless when it takes you off the edge of a conceptual cliff. True understanding, not guesswork, creates the clarity that begets flow. You can’t fake it. Keep moving, and enjoy the ride.

Nick de la Mare is an associate creative director at frog’s San Francisco studio.