Last year I began the Practice Profile series, motivated by a nagging desire to instigate more dialogue about the subject of creative practice. My curiosity about the nature of creativity leads to countless informal discussions about the influence of creative thinking in our daily lives. Often those conversations broaden or augment my perspective in some way. Likewise, each Practice Profile offers readers a similar opportunity to consider creativity from the perspective of another.

This month I am excited to feature Jessica Ivins, a talented User Experience (UX) designer. Jessica is based in Philadelphia, where she seems right at home amid a city that is teeming with other talented and intelligent professionals. User Experience (UX) design is a field that relies heavily on creative thinking, a subject with which Jessica is already well versed. It was her childhood interest in drawing, coupled with academic training in Fine Art and Art Education, that ultimately taught Jessica the importance of stepping beyond the comfort zone in order to shed creative limitations.

When asked about her current creative practice, Jess replied,

For a variety of reasons, I decided to take a drawing class at a local arts center last year. The instructor, Maggie Mills, brought me back down art school memory lane; we started each class with quick sketches called croquis. She would say things like “don’t be afraid to scribble… try holding the medium at different angles to get a feel for what values and textures you can create… get your blood flowing and get your arms moving.” It had been so long since my last art class. Generating raw ideas and practicing raw drawing skills in this way set a great tone for me. It allowed me to explore new territory unhindered. I realized it was okay to mess up, and that taking risks and failing made me a better artist in the long term. I was proud of all the work I produced in that class.

Unfortunately, I don’t make much time for art these days. My interests have shifted to reading, exercising, cooking, and devoting time to my career, user experience (UX). But my job does demand creative thinking skills. As a user experience (UX) designer, my role is to make websites useful, usable, and desirable for the people who need to use them. But my job is also to satisfy the needs of my client or colleagues. Businesses have goals that must be met, and users have needs they want a website to satisfy. Sometimes the needs of the business and the users conflict, so reconciling all of this can be challenging. The Web is also a medium that’s constantly in flux and evolving. Thus creative thinking and problem solving skills are indispensable necessities for any UX designer.”

Jessica’s vivid description illuminates why the habits of mind learned through the making of art are not easily forgotten.  The most profound lessons that take place through arts learning—that is, learning to take risks, learning to explore multiple angles, learning to explore new territory unhindered—are accessible long after the direct experience of making art is finished. In a complex and dynamic field like UX design, the territory changes frequently. Developing skills to navigate new terrain is paramount. Fortunately, once internalized, the habits of mind learned in the art room become useful in other contexts. Creative thinking begets creative thinking, and learning through the arts cultivates qualitative reasoning skills that are needed to thrive in any profession.

When asked how her creative practice informs her professional practice, Jessica gave the following (fascinating!) reply,

“Before any sketching or designing begins, I always begin a project by obtaining a full understanding of the problem. What are our users trying to do? Is it the same as what we think they’re trying to do? What are the needs of my fellow team members or my client? Do I understand all goals and limitations? Once everything’s on the table, I can put any creative exercises into perspective. I can find the right exercise or approach to fit the problem I need to solve.

I realized some time ago that my traditional way of working was inefficient and limited. I was generating my own ideas, working in a silo to produce fully realized documentation, then asking for feedback after pouring my heart and soul into a finished deliverable. It wasn’t a fruitful way of making quality designs. Ironically, I had always appreciated the creative approaches I learned about in art school, though I never put similar approaches to use in my work. The Exquisite Corpse game created by Surrealist artists comes to mind. This game involves the collective assembly of words or images, usually the body of a person. The results are entertaining and humorous, but more importantly, they spark new ideas. I had also never thought to look outside my own industry for new ideas. But in an art school drawing class, we watched a film called Decasia: The State of Decay. It is an assortment of very old silent films that are decaying with age. The film is set to music, and the decayed artifacts render distorted imagery that is stunning to watch. We watched the film in its entirety, and then used stills to inspire charcoal drawings. Both the Exquisite Corpse exercise and the film helped me find new ideas as an artist. I remember them both so clearly because they had such an impact upon my creative approach.

For years I had never thought to apply collaborative activities like the Exquisite Corpse to my own practice as a UX designer, nor did I think to look outside of my industry for inspiration. But thanks to the many collaborative exercises outlined in Dave Gray’s Gamestorming, as well as Kevin Hoffman’s mentorship and work on running effective, collaborative meetings, I’ve come to build creativity into my work as a UX designer. I’ve learned to involve a diverse range of stakeholders in the creative process so that various perspectives are considered, rather than relying solely on the perspective of myself or other designers. At the most basic level, crowdsourcing colleagues allows me to accomplish more than simply working alone. But it also brings more ideas into the equation than I could ever generate on my own. Sketching and affinity diagramming are two of many techniques I’ve learned to employ with groups of stakeholders or clients.”

Finally, I asked Jessica to share a memorable example that speaks to the relationship between her creative and professional pursuits.  She explained,

“While at Happy Cog, I was tasked with creating a site map for a client project. A site map is essentially a diagram of all pages on a website. The diagram accounts for all pages but also establishes the hierarchy and organization of those pages, forming a comprehensive website structure. I had traditionally created site maps on my own. However, I decided to create this one collaboratively with the help of several colleagues working on this project. Together we successfully produced all possible types of content, categorized them on the wall, and adjusted the categories for content that didn’t have a natural place to go. The result was a site map structure that everyone on the team was happy with.”

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Jess is a Philadelphia-based User Experience (UX) designer and researcher who enjoys making websites useful, easy to use, and enjoyable. She speaks, writes, and volunteers for many things UX. She’s spoken internationally at conferences such as SXSW, Midwest UX, IA Summit, and UX Camp Ottawa. She’s the main organizer for UX Book Club Philly and served as an officer for PhillyCHI, Philadelphia’s UX community. Previously a senior experience designer at Happy Cog, she is now senior UX specialist at AWeber.

Jess is passionate about making everything she touches easy and enjoyable to use. A strong advocate for universal usability, she’s admittedly befuddled by a lack of clarity in everything from road signage to food packaging. She especially likes to drive her family nuts by complaining about the plastic film on food containers that can’t be removed without a knife.

In her spare time, Jess busies herself with reading, cooking, and enjoying a fine glass of wine or craft beer. She’s also mildly obsessed with the TV show Forensic Files.

© 2013 Kira Campo

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