Letting Go: The Designer’s Dilemma

[originally posted to my LinkedIn profile]

Creative people are trying to solve problems. Problems we haven’t realized we have, problems we forgot about, or problems of which we’re all too aware.

Having worked as both a game designer and writer, I’ve realized that they face similar obstacles. They both need to make something out of nothing. They both want to create feelings, to fill our hearts and minds with new experiences. They both want to challenge and reward us. And they both get their work questioned, prodded, scrutinized, misunderstood, and canned. Every day, all the time.

A lot of discussion and effort is focused on how to foster creativity, and rightfully so. But being creative isn’t what burns out creative people, it’s what fuels them. What burns them out is loss.

It’s easy to say, “Just let go”, and it’s easy to understand why letting go is a good idea. But the universal experience of the designer is that when it comes time to actually put this ethos into action, there is always a strong, seemingly exceptional circumstance that makes the loss unfair, inappropriate, or unacceptable. In other words, there’s always a “but”, and at the time you always think that on this one occasion, you deserve a pass. (I say “you” because when you gave birth to something, you find it hard to separate your identities). If you find yourself thinking or saying the following, you might be a designer:

“But the work is already all done!” (common response to Production telling you the work isn’t in scope)

“But players love it!” (response to being told there’s no time to polish the feature)

“But it’s never been done before!” (response to being told the idea is too off-the-wall)

“It’s self-explanatory!” (response to being told it’s too confusing or too hard to teach the player)

Now, I don’t wish to sound cruel with these examples. None of these lines make you a bad designer. In fact, they all come from my own experience as the designer fighting for these ideas — and from the experience of pretty much any designer out there. And I want to be clear about something else: it’s the designer’s JOB to come up with these crazy ideas, play them out, learn from them, hone them, and very occasionally shine them into gold (but mostly not).

Unfortunately, it’s also the designer’s job to crush them, can them, give up on them, cancel them: to finally, grudgingly, let them go. Because design is about exploring a ton of ideas and how they connect, playing out all the scenarios, and then picking only those that fit the precise equation you’re trying to solve. It’s like being put in charge of the Multiverse, and then realizing you have to pick just one Earth to save. This part of the job sucks. But it is part of the job.

Remember that it’s good that you feel something. It’s a good thing you care when your ideas don’t make it. If you no longer give a shit, you might just be too jaded to be creative. And if you never felt that invested in your ideas in the first place, you might just be turning up for the paycheck.

So when you’re facing off against the demons and dark forces all around you, forces that want to snuff out the little spark of your idea, go home, have a cup of tea and be creative in some other way. Plant something. Play a game you’ve never played. Read a book you’ve never read. Come up with a board game idea. Heck: tidy the damn house – prepare yourself to be in the frame of mind for your next great idea. I can’t advise you to go home and drink yourself into oblivion… but you won’t be surprised to learn that that happens too.

And when worse comes to worst and you have to murder your darlings, you can always do what I do… Write a blog post as therapy. Then snuff them out of existence, and start thinking about what’s next.