Recent posts

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  • Excuses, excuses Some people might suggest it’s not worth redesigning a site I only post to twice a year. They’re missing the point.
  • The Optimizer Every designer is wired differently. Some people are idea people, some people are artists. I’m an optimizer.
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  • Airport express Recently I learned two things about interaction design and user experience from waiting in lines at the airport.
  • Shouts and echoes There have been some situations lately that have got me thinking a lot about the Internet as a megaphone for personal communication.


12 April 2008

The Optimizer

Every designer is wired differently. Some people are idea people, some people are artists. I'm an optimizer.

I had a conversation recently with a good friend where I was talking about some things that had been frustrating me, things I wanted to change about my current situation. My friend was too polite to say it, but as I listened to what I was saying, it sounded a lot like whining.

The thing is, I’m perfectly happy, probably as happy as I’ve ever been. I have more support and more freedom to do my best work now than I ever have before. Since I started working from home, I have more time and more energy to focus on the things I get the most satisfaction from, both work and personal.

As cheesy as it sounds, my life has never been better. But still I’m thinking obsessively — and talking anybody’s ear off who will listen — about how I could make the situation better.

I go through a pretty consistent cycle with projects. I always start with ambitious plans and a lot of optimism, but progress is slow. Then something clicks and there’s a rush of momentum to get the ideas down as they come. Then there’s a practical push to make things work, and usually some of the more ambitious ideas get brought down to earth or thrown out altogether. Once it’s out there, there’s usually a very short amount of time where I’m actually happy with what I’ve accomplished.

After that brief moment of satisfaction, I immediately start to see everything that’s wrong or missing and start obsessing over what should be different or better. From that point on I’m incapable of being satisfied with the finished product.

That’s one reason I feel like I’m best at redesigns—taking something that works and making it better. It’s just the way my brain is wired. The first thing I think about when I use something I really like is how I could make it better. It’s not an ego thing, like I think I could have done it better in the first place. It’s just that I think it’s fun, and my brain just runs away with it. I read books and think about the movie. I use websites and play games and think about the redesign.

I think there’s a kernel of that attitude — or something like it — that’s just part of being a designer. Some people are idea people, some people are artists, some people think in systems, some people have a more organic approach. Everybody is wired up to naturally tune in on one or another of those aspects, or some combination that gives you your focus. It’s what makes you do what you do, because you can’t help thinking about the world that way anyway.

I’m an optimizer. What’s your excuse?


  1. 20 May 2008

    Matt Wilcox

    I think I’m similar. I can spot problems very quickly, and I can usually think of alternatives or possible solutions pretty fast too. But when it comes to starting from scratch, or having some sort of original vision… that’s very hard and very rare for me.

    Give me a starting block and I’m fine. Give me a blank canvas or no restrictions and I’m lost.

    I obsess over the details too. It irritates me no end if I can spot obvious problems that are not within my power to correct. Certain choices clients make for example, while they’re the client and they pay the bills, it just sits badly with me that something is committed to which I know is not optimal.

    For example the UK road safety adverts. Whoever thought them up has, to my mind, made so many mistakes that it almost angers me. We have this sort of thing:

    It’s shot like a movie. There’s background music, slow motion, cinema lighting, a mini story, characters, cinema pans… and every single one of these things isolates us from the message. Every single one of these techniques shouts to our psyche that what we are watching is made up, that it is entertainment. It divorces the experience of watching from the message intended. Compare with a french example:

    Reality is reality. If you’re intending to make a viewer pay attention and relate something on their TV to their own life, then present it as reality. And in reality there’s just the event. There’s no backing music or camera pan or mini story.

    I spot this sort of stuff all the time. But if you asked me to produce a road safety ad from scratch, I’m sure I’d botch it.

    Shoulders and giants. It’s the only way I know.

  2. 20 May 2008

    Angelo Simeoni

    Wilson, when’s the last time you created for creations sake? No clients, no schedules, no money, nothing but the pure act of creating? For me, it was before preschool.

    I’ve been thinking lately that there might be something to it. It sounds pretty crunchy, but it could just need to marinate as an idea for a bit longer.

    As for me (and most I’d suspect), I have no real excuse.

  3. 20 May 2008

    Joshua Works

    It’s like the day after you buy that new car, and you start to see the exact damn car everywhere you go: once you cross the threshold into the realities of design and are suddenly aware of the millions of interfaces and interactions you have with design every day, you can’t help but notice it and want to frickin’ fix it all.

    The navigation screen in that car; the TV guide on your digital cable; pretty much every sign or poster or flyer or brochure or commercial or business card or food label or those damned $50 gas receipts; and things you really have no right to be criticizing in the first place (at least not out loud): friends’ wedding invitations, your 8-year-old’s hand-made birthday cards. Nothing’s done quite right, and you’re aware of it, and you’ve got the skillz to do something about it, if someone would’ve just asked.

    Oh yeah, I’ve got that disease.

    And I think you’re right, that it takes (at least) a bit of that to be a good designer, to see the problems for just that, and to know how to fix them.

  4. 20 May 2008

    Nathan Borror

    I can’t tell you how many clients and bosses I’ve thrown for a loop by deciding at the last minute to completely redesign my initial approved design just to reignite motivation. It’s usually brought on by learning from the initial design and realizing faults I can’t live with.

  5. 20 May 2008

    Brian Hunziker

    This is precisely how I tend to feel about my own design work, though “tweaker” is always how I’ve characterized my design persona: I’m not an idea person and I’ve always considered this to be one of my shortcomings as a designer. It’s a struggle to articulate something, and once it’s out there I never feel I’ve got it quite right, but I know precisely where I’ve got it wrong.

    I’m now in the early stages of a pretty massive redesign at work, and I actually feel more invigorated by the work I’m doing now than in the previous 6 months of building the darn thing in the first place. Partly it’s having the time and resources to dedicate to things that were rushed, but I think it just wouldn’t be any fun if there weren’t something that always needed tweaking.

    The downside to this is that I have lots of perpetually unfinished personal projects lying around, the penultimate example being my personal website, the domain for which I registered in 2000. Here we are, 8 years later. It isn’t done. It’s like the Sagrada Familia of websites. :)

  6. 20 May 2008

    Reuben Whitehouse

    Isn’t this part of the fun of it though? Like when you make a certain recipe for the first time and it rocks but then you start thinking about how when you next make it, it’ll be even more awesome with a ton of hot sauce (for example)?

    Problem with client work (and conversely, the good thing about personal projects) is the way that so often (not always) it’s presupposed to be awesome; done; dusted - right off the bat; at round one; not much chance of any tweaks or improvements for at least a year or so. It’s a terrible way to approach to the production of anything which you want to succeed in attracting people, doing business, whatever.

    Is it why all the best products are those which are being constantly improved, reinvented, etc. (ie. Apple anything)?

  7. 12 September 2008


    As I was reading this post, I was thinking to my self - “Jeez-us, did I write this?”

    Seriously, I’m glad to hear that somebody else has the same issues I do.

    I’m going to call my therapist!

  8. 14 September 2008


    hi i think this is kool…… with a “k”

  9. 19 September 2008

    Frank Malina

    I suffer the same disease and I found a cure for myself. I am now working on my thing, my single most important design every day making it better fixing and tweaking, bringing every pixel to perfection, adding features in little precise steps.

    I am selling to my customers a design that will never be finished and they love this my main selling point: Growth potential.

    Growth potential is a precious asset.

  10. 22 October 2008


    Hmm. Perhaps you and I should start a Global Empire together because I’m the complete, utter and total opposite.

    I love the inspiration, energy, and imagination that goes into a new design, but once it’s done I don’t ever want to see it again. Because I’ve done it and now it’s time to progress to something new and different.

    I think this is why John Cleese left the Monty Python TV show; he got bored working on the same thing every day.

    I call this “production mode” and I hate it. It stifles my creativity because it is what it is and it doesn’t aim to be anything different, new, or better.

  11. 25 October 2008


    I’m rather the collector. Though I do suffer from being constantly unsatisfied with my work once its done, I’m best at “stealing” the best elements of every work I come across and reuse them. One might call it inspiration, but I’m simply disappointed i didn’t come up with something similar. So hey… after combining everything to create a new perfect piece, I’m convinced for a second i did it, before i get depressed about the whole lot of imperfection i’ve just created!

  12. 26 November 2008


    Wilson’s dead on: this is how I separate the Artists from the Designers. The Optimizer makes the perfect Art Director. I let my team do most of the initial designing. Then (as Wilson stated) the fun part is refining and making it better. Team projects just work much smoother with this approach.

  13. 26 November 2008

    matt cook

    I’m another member of this club. Most editors probably are too. I expect there are a few members working in the engineering field.

  14. 3 December 2008

    Nicolas Noben

    What might help is to bring your ideas out the door asap and iterate from there.

    Launch quickly and review via iteration what works and what doesn’t until you solve the problem in a more elegant way.

    I’m a challenge person, I bite and I don’t let go.

  15. 5 December 2008

    Cameron Schuyler

    I’d definitely say I’m a mixture of all the above mentioned designer-types. I have to be where I work. I have to be able to spark a concept that works as well as redesign existing sites. Whatever the task requires, right? I draw inspiration from other designers and web trends, but I definitely have to be innovative. Redesigns are definitely my fav though - you get to see what is wrong with an existing design and fix it. Tasty.

  16. 8 December 2008

    Farid Hadi

    Being a “web architect” and not a “web designer” I find a blank canvas quite scary at times =) Having a design in front of me and improving it, now that’s something I’m more capable of. Although I wish I was a better designer, I always feel that balancing creativity and logic should give you the best results, unless you are looking to win design awards.

  17. 8 December 2008


    Wow it is so nice to know that i am not the only one :) I think i drive my boss mad, because i have a design down, and for an evening i am happy, get to work the next morning and think to myself “this design is just all wrong” lol

  18. 9 December 2008

    James Greenfield

    Show me a designer who doesn’t think they could improve and they are not truly trying. I think us always wanting better keeps us going.

  19. 18 December 2008

    tamra rolf

    I am an optimizer too…the word “redesign” definitely causes the saliva to churn. After reading your post, I feel a little bit better about never being satisfied with any design, although that’s supposed to be a good attribute as a designer, it’s also the most frustrating part as it causes a lot of doubt. But I think I am feeling the redesign itch.

    I’m glad I ran into your site (via ilovetypography)

  20. 7 March 2009

    John Pash

    The message is for all the fellow “optimizers” and optimizers-in-recovery, like myself. In order to get past this block (and I do consider it a block to creativity) is to be able to optimize your OWN work as if it was created by someone else. I like to optimize other people’s work because they’ve already done the hard bits. But when it comes to my own, I just get burnt out and can’t see it anymore. So what can you do?

    You know all those cheesy sounding right brain/left brain exercises you read about all the time? This is what they were created for. If you get stuck in your own design, have someone else play the part of optimizer. I often get the most useful critique from people who think Photoshop is where you take your holiday pics to get developed. Change it up a bit.

    But the thing that works the best for me is to hop on my bike and take a 50km ride along the canal, out of the city and back. Exercise happens to be the best excerise for the brain. Whooda thunk it?

  21. 19 March 2009

    Sanju Paison

    there are different ways of looking at things and different ways of doing things. optimizers are people hell-bent on thinking their way is the only right way. it gives them a feeling of power. but after that it’s a pitiable, boring, 1-D life.