#30 HOW CONSTRAINTS HELP OUR CREATIVITY - with Dian Wessels

Updated: Oct 13, 2021



Hello everyone, welcome back to Fresh Perspective where we’ll be taking another look at life with someone who’s almost a lifelong friend of mine. We met in high school. We’ll be taking a fresh perspective with Dian Wessels. Welcome!


Thank you.


What do you do, Dian? That’s the first question I ask all the guests. It’s kind of you introducing yourself.


Is as little as possible a good answer, or not really?


(Laughs) If you can get paid for that, yes, that’s a great answer.


(Laughs) I’m a graphic designer by trade, but I don’t actually like using the term because you get a certain picture in your head when you hear graphic designer. You see someone that designs logos and brochures and marketing material, and that’s all good and fine, that is also what I do. But I actually like the term visual communication designer better, because it describes, I think, in broader terms what graphic designers actually do. It’s about any form of communication that is visual. Something you can see, and that you have to derive meaning from. So that’s one part of what I do. I’ve pivoted about two or three years ago into UI and UX design.


What’s that?


UI stands for User Interface. So every time you do something on an app on your phone or on your computer, you are interacting with an interface that someone had to design. So with human interface design, user interface design or UI-design, you have to bear in mind what the limitations of human interaction with the device are. For instance, we only have five fingers on one hand. When you hold something in your hand, your thumb cannot reach all the way to the top. So you want primary activities in the area where your thumb is, for instance. So there are all sorts of principles and limitations that come into play when you are designing for human interaction with a device. 


UX design has to do with the user experience. So in the UI design, it’s just the interface, where are the buttons, where’s the menu, how do I get from this place to that place. The user experience is your whole experience from the first time you open the app and you on-board, and you try to do something. Was it easy, was it frustrating? Did you feel it took too many steps? Et cetera. So it has to do with your whole experience of the environment of the interface. I’ve been doing a lot of that the last few years, and I’m thoroughly enjoying it. I’m working with developers, which is great. Most of them are geeks like myself. So we like to talk about tech and games and all sorts of interesting, geeky things. That’s in short what I do. I’m a visual communication designer.


Okay. It almost sounds like you are doing nothing. Playing games, you said.


No, that must have come out wrong. We sometimes play games to forget the troubles at work. 


(Laughs) Okay.


I sometimes wish I was a game designer. That also looks like a very interesting field of work.


All right. Let’s talk about this visual communication a bit more. So the communication is not really about, maybe a script or words, it’s also about colours and things like that. What are behind-the-scenes thought patterns or ideas that determine which colours you use, which shapes you use when you design something to communicate different things? Maybe you can give us two examples, two extreme examples of designing and what colours and shapes you use.


So there’s a couple of principles. Let’s talk about UI design specifically. When you look at a little dashboard, and you are looking at sales, for instance, it’s important to know that colour has intrinsic, symbolic value. It is something that’s learned, but it’s also something that is natural and organic to a certain extent. If you think of the colour red, you typically associate it with danger. It’s not something we thought up. It’s the same in nature, right. So certain animals or plants are red and poisonous, although you also get red fruit that’s not poisonous. So it’s not always the case. But the way we use it, if you think of something like traffic lights. We associate green with everything’s fine, you can go. Orange is a warning or something you might need to reconsider before taking action, and red means stop, or danger. So typically in dashboard design, you would use those symbolic values of colours to communicate a certain status to a user. That’s one example. 


Other examples would be that colour has certain emotional effects on users as well. So very bright colours draw our attention, so you wanna use that for something that needs to get the user’s attention but only for a short time. You don’t wanna over-use it, otherwise it’s kind of like the boy crying wolf. If you say, look at me all the time on the dashboard, the user gets desensitized. And if you shout at the user in that way and you actually want to get their attention for something that’s going wrong, how are you gonna do it? You’ll need some kind of flashing animation or something. Colour needs to be used in balance, so that’s why we mostly use neutral colours in a dashboard and only use a bright colour to communicate important things because our eyes are drawn to bright colours in that sense. 


And then I want to say something about the emotional effect of certain colours – like blue communicates steadfastness, trustworthiness, a sense of calm, of being in control. Orange can also communicate creativity and innovation. So every colour has some sort of symbolic value that you can use to your advantage. Colour’s only once aspect in visual communication design. Something like shape is also very important. We use shapes in icon design, and icons obviously need to be recognisable. If you don’t recognise an icon, it’s actually useless. And you’d be surprised to discover how few icons are universally recognisable. It’s a handful. Maybe a little heart for love, or the hexagon for a stop sign, and a few others. So icon design is quite a tricky thing to use in user interface design. I always use this test: if I have to think up an icon for something specific, like – let’s say I need an icon for the word conversation. It’s best to go with the thing that’s most obvious in your head. It doesn’t make sense to come up with something creative or innovative, and it looks very cool, but people have to look at it and kind of figure out what it’s about. So if I do anything with a conversation, I’m gonna use a speech bubble. Or something similar. That’s immediately recognisable as conversation or talking, or chat, message, something like that. So you kind of have to meet users where they are. What is the obvious thing for users? One of the main, main principles of UI design, don't make me think. The user doesn’t want to think about what he or she wants to do. They just want to do it. You wanna log into an app, and you wanna do this thing. Make a payment, or send a message, or whatever. If it’s too complicated, if it’s not obvious, then you’ve kind of failed in what you wanted to do.


That’s quite interesting. So you touched on creativity and innovation, which is something I wanna talk to you about as well. And when we create art, we kind of wanna go to the opposite side of that. We want the person interacting with the art to think and engage with it in more than just a visual way. Also emotionally, and even intellectually, engage with an art piece. So what are your takes on creativity? What determines if a person actually utilises their creativity?


The interesting thing about the work that I do is that it’s applied creativity, right. So there’s always a brief that the designer has to work with, and a brief contains certain requirements and constraints. You have to come up with a solution that fulfils that specific brief or set of requirements from the client. So creativity is always guided by these principles. But when it comes to art and personal expression, there isn’t a brief per se. Not necessarily. And it depends on what you wanna do with your art or your creativity. So on the one hand, you might want to make a personal statement or a political statement, on the other hand, it might just be a way to express a certain state of mind. Et cetera. But one thing I do know and believe is that we are all naturally creative. It’s part of being human. 


I think what activates our creativity, is any form of constraint. So even if I want to do something creative, right, I’m not going to stand in the middle of a field and then start jumping around and pulling out leaves and making marks. Maybe that’s your thing, but you know, you’ll have a certain idea – I wanna make a painting. That’s a constraint. Okay – what medium? Oil paint. On canvas? Right – how big? Well, I wanna do something smallish. So you keep adding constraints, and that helps to focus the mind and eventually you come up with something that you do with your hands or your feet, or whatever. So I think it’s really, really difficult to be creative if you don’t have any form of constraint. I think that’s how our brains evolved. So you’re a caveman, and you wanna make a hole in something. There’s a specific constraint. I see there’s honey inside this tree. I can see the bees coming out of a small hole, and I wanna get inside. How do I do it? Now the brain starts working. The guy that couldn’t do it died. The guys that figured out something, they survived, and eventually we all have these wonderful organs that are activated when there’s some challenge. Some kind of constraint. Something I need to solve. And I think that’s where creativity really, really becomes -


So what’s your answer to people who say, no, I’m not creative? You say everyone’s creative, which I agree with fully. How do you engage with people who say no, you know – I wish I was as creative as you.


Or I can’t draw, or I wish I was creative. Something like that.


What’s your take on that? Or your encouragement or message to people who feel that way?


In the first place, I think it’s a false belief. I think it has to do with the way we were brought up and the way the education system is designed, unfortunately, to promote some form of a fixed mindset. So we are assessed with testing and exams from a young age, creative work is also assessed, but it’s more difficult because it’s subjective as well. So now the teacher doesn’t like your expressive style, and she says, F for this painting. The message you internalise is, I can’t draw, or I can’t paint, I am not creative, because of a very specific idea that that teacher or system had about how you needed to express yourself. So it’s just something that needs to be unlearned. And