Chronicles of a Design Project

Part 1: What’s the big problem?

My gentle reader,

I have just embarked on a design project in the bristly forest of paints and canvases, in search of better ways for artists to manage their color inventory as they work.

I am keeping a weekly(ish) blog. This is the first posting in this series, an introduction into the problem space and how I came across it. I am hoping to give an open and honest portrayal of how I do design.

Problem Space

On a breezy-cold San Francisco night, with the inky sky filling the windows, I sat down next to Marjoori, my client (and incidentally my sister), to inspect a problem that had been eating at her for awhile:

  • Why is it so hard for an artist to keep track of her color inventory.

Marjoori, is an artist, who recently transitioned from color pencils to Copic markers, a medium that is suddenly much more demanding on her coloring resources. She had already spent a good many days researching different apps and websites that deal with coloring inventories for artists, but was ultimately disappointed.

So, how did I get involved?

A Sequence of Fortuitous Events

Well, actually just two events:

  1. A sticky problem falling right into my lap.
  2. My blissful job hunt as a new graduate leaving me some time for side projects.

You see, Marjoori happens to be a designer too ( Marjoori is her alias), and an experienced one at that. But swamped as she is with work, she has no time for a side project. More importantly, because she is an accomplished artist with her own way of doing things, she might be just a hair too close to the heart of the problem to be able to take a broad view. She has already spent countless nights pondering solutions that would help her particular workflow.

On the other hand, I had just finished school and had some time to spare. There were several things that drew me to take this project on:

  • A real person, with a real problem. I can actually see the frustration and the disappointment in not finding a useful solution. I can always tell myself that I am making someone’s life a bit easier.
  • Design research in a subject I care about. As an aspiring artist still figuring things out, I would love to get a chance to talk to other artists about their experiences.
  • A complex system. There are loads of different types of materials artists use for coloring. They apply color to different material using different tools, which all affects how the color appears on the final work. To top it off they may work on different projects at a time. How do they manage all of that?

Scoping the Project

So on that glistening inky night, my goal was to define an initial scope for the project, to get it off the ground. I used question-storming, that is, I wrote down the problem worded as a statement, and my sister and I went at it with all our questions and fears.

Here is my favorite Post-it. It sounds silly at first, but upon close inspection it is quite meaty :

“Well keeping track of stuff on pieces of paper isn’t very easy. Why should I question this?”

Themes that came up during question-storming

  • Access to coloring systems from different brands, and possible issues with different naming conventions.
  • Difference between artists’ individual workflows and how that could impact creating inventories.
  • Promotion of the project
  • Technical and development considerations
  • Possible expansion of the project to a more generic all-purpose inventory platform

First off, with a team of one designer/researcher (me), I decided to table the possible expansion of the project into other fields ( groceries, clothes, etc). I also held off on discussing technical issues until the ideation phase. We agreed on an initial two-month time constraint.

The critical outcome of this exercise was that we narrowed our target to a specific group of artists.

Target Audience

Not all artists necessarily feel the same urge for finding a better way of inventorying colors they use. Our focus will be on artists that use color-intensive techniques that eat up a great amount of coloring resources.

The parameter for this target came from Marjoori’s experience. She noted that when she used to work with color pencils, it would take weeks before she had worn a pencil down to a stub. And even then, she rarely ran out of more than two colors at a time. It was no hassle to manage her color pencil inventory on paper. But now that she uses markers on a coarse paper that sucks the ink out, she feels the pressure to have a better grip of her inventory.

What’s ahead

This week, I am excited to see where the interviews with artists take me, and what information I glean. Stay tuned for that.


Part 1: What’s the big problem?
Part 2: Exploratory research
Part 3: Design phase kick off
Part 4: Exploration of the design through low-fi
Part 5: Iterating and finalizing MVP designs
Part 6: From mobile to web