The Power of 60-Minute Design Exercises

After working at Digital Surgeons for a full 365 days, I’ve come to learn what my biggest strengths and weaknesses are in the field of design.

My strengths lie in the areas of experimentation, ideation, and iteration. I can be briefed on a project and come back with twenty solutions instead of one or two. This sounds like a great thing, generally, but sometimes my weaknesses counteract the value in these strengths.

Experimentation, ideation, and iteration are in and of themselves glorious traits, but when those things take too long, both time and money are lost. This brings us to my self-proclaimed weaknesses: overthinking (aka “noodling”), indecisiveness, and the fear of beginning.

I’ve always had an inner indecisiveness as wide and as wavering as the ocean (to quote Lana del Rey), and I attribute this to my general feelings of insecurity about the world and my place in it. I’ve always thought of this trait romantically, but when it's brought into my everyday work at Digital Surgeons, it becomes less romantic and more of a hindrance to my speed of output.

In the working world, speed is important. If anyone still in school were to ask me what one thing was that school doesn't prepare you for, I would hands-down say: working quickly without sacrificing quality. Design school was wonderful and other-worldly in its opportunities and fantastical projects, but with its 2–4 week deadlines and minimal checkpoints (esp. during junior and senior year), it does not prepare you to think quickly or be confidently decisive in your choices.

A few months ago, the head of the Creative Department here at Digital Surgeons introduced a new bi-monthly exercise called Freestyle Fridays. Little did I know at the beginning how greatly this would impact my creative confidence, as well as my ability to make quick choices and totally smash the “heebie jeebies” that come with beginning something brand new.

Freestyle Fridays happen every other Friday among the entire DS creative team. We all gather in a room, are given a brief, and have exactly 60 minutes to come to a creative conclusion, in teams or on our own. These briefs usually have nothing to do with anything going on inside of DS — they are imaginative and out-of-the-box assignments that make you think on your feet. (A couple examples include: “Make something that describes what music means to you,” and “Find something in the office and sell it via the medium of your choice.”)

When we first hear the brief, there’s always a small high that comes with the excitement. It’s like a race to create something thoughtful, meaningful, and beautiful — within a very short timeframe.

In this setting, it’s crucial to think on your feet, commit to an idea early, and then use the time to get your idea across in a comprehensible way.

There’s no time for any fear, indecision, or excessive noodling. You simply must take one of your first ideas and run with it — without looking back. This definitely involves a level of confidence and fearlessness that I was never used to before.

I’ve never been a competitive person, but when Freestyle Friday comes around, I turn into someone I don’t usually get to see — a hyper-focused, decisive Design Beast whose flow state is impenetrable to any outside force known to man. I like this person. I want to be her more often.

With every Freestyle Friday, I find myself becoming more and more of this person, and I find that my actual day-to-day work is benefiting greatly from the practice. I’m beginning to overthink less, while still remaining deeply thoughtful. I’m beginning to jump into the water faster, before dipping my toes in for an hour first. I’m beginning to make faster decisions by trusting my gut, without worrying that I may have missed a possible solution.

In fact, Freestyle Fridays have broken out beyond just being something we do every other week. It's become a new way of working for me when I have some downtime (not that that happens often here!). The last time I had a bit of downtime, one of our creative directors offered me a challenge to create a video in After Effects to go with an audio track our Tech Director had created for fun. I was able to channel my Freestyle Friday energy and buckle down to tackle this task in a way that allowed me to think and execute quickly and without fear. In a short period of time, I not only successfully created the video, but boosted my knowledge of After Effects. (Check it out here!)

Don’t get me wrong; experimentation, ideation, and exploration are still crucial parts of my practice, but the newfound confidence I have in myself has made them all happen in pursuit of a chosen concept instead of happening for each and every idea that comes to mind.

It’s all about knowing and accepting that there are a million solutions to every problem, but that it’s more important to show and execute the value of one than it is to find them all.

I highly recommend timing yourself for 60 minutes the next time you get a project brief. It’s exhilarating to find out what you’re able to come up with in such a short time.  

Check out some of the Freestyle Friday projects that have made me a faster thinker and more efficient designer at work:

What Music Means to You
Predicting 2018
Quote Design
Smoothie Music Video