Originally I wanted to write a post about making something as “you” as it could be. About making what you create so you that it’s as inseparable from you as your left hand. But I’m starting to think that self-expression for the hell of it shouldn’t be the only goal of creativity.

I had a conversation with Craig Burgess in which he told me that he creates everything – and publishes everything – for himself. This is fine. I create and publish stuff for that reason too. But I also think that you can’t care about how someone experiences what you create if you don’t consider the human being on the other side of the screen. Or, maybe, the empathy for the audience/customer takes shape as you improve your craft. It’s true: I’d rather listen to a musician with 10,000 hours of practice than a musician with 100 hours of practice. Obviously it’s unfair to say that the inexperienced musician lacks empathy. Or that the experienced musician cares deeply about me and my needs.

I guess what I’m struggling to understand is this. If it’s true that empathy is at the heart of good design, then to whom are we being empathetic towards when we create something just to express ourselves? Who are our ‘clients’, if we’re making something just to satisfy our desire to be creative? And if the clientele/freelancer-as-creator mentality is appropriate, is it fair to say that the following response is inappropriate?

“You made something for us and we don’t like it.”

“Oh, well I was just expressing myself so it doesn’t really matter.”

That’s not how a healthy client-freelancer relationship works. The freelancer makes something for a client, and if the client doesn’t like it, the freelancer adjusts the product to fit the client’s needs, and/or helps the client articulate their needs.

Ok, but I’ve said on my podcast before that good musicians make music for themselves, always illustrating the point with Radiohead. Fans of Radiohead in the 90s wanted Radiohead to keep making music that sounded like Radiohead in the 90s. I don’t know if Radiohead never heard the request, or if they ignored it altogether. But it doesn’t matter: The Radiohead of today makes music that sounds nothing like the Radiohead of yesterday.

So who is Radiohead trying to please? Their craft. Their muse. Their calling to explore the possibilities in music itself. Something like that, anyways. Radiohead doesn’t waste time in focus groups. Thom Yorke isn’t going door to door asking people what they want their next record to sound like. Although it might not be the case that they’re making music to please themselves. They probably don’t know what pleases them today, what might please them tomorrow. It’s in the exploration that Radiohead meets what pleases them.

So is that the conclusion? Cater to exploration? Maybe, maybe not. Radiohead knows what good music sounds like to them. Thom Yorke & company play with motifs, themes, and riffs that resonate with their taste as musicians. Those motifs and themes and riffs are just slices of what makes for good music. They’re not the whole picture of what makes for good music. And if one tries to make good music by trying to fit in everything, well, then one makes nothing. It has to be something. Something made of specific parts. Parts that work in conjunction and counterpoint to other parts. And I think that’s why Radiohead still has fans today. Radiohead understands the rules of good music so well that they can get away with breaking them.

Ok, so maybe my sort-of-conclusion is this. Empathy for how my audience experiences my work takes care of itself the more I practice my craft. And further, direct feedback from others is important, yes, but it shouldn’t replace careful study for the rules of the craft itself.

I’ve put spaces between these paragraphs because I care about the readability of my writing. But what I don’t understand, still, is why it is that I care about readability. Maybe it’s because I’m interested in the art of readability, the art of formatting. Can’t have Rock-N-Roll without any Roll, without any rhythm.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s