Note: This article was originally published here.
My creative career has been a movement from subjectivity to objectivity — I’ve moved from fine art to graphic design, to user experience design, and then to design systems. I love the structure and order of systems design.
Recently I’ve been finding there is fear mixed in with love. I’m afraid of subjectivity, so I cling to the system.
Thriving on the system
I enjoy working on design systems because I get to create order and make components, patterns, and standards to bring beauty and consistency to user interfaces. I enjoy extending and improving the existing foundation of the system.
Design system components have high standards to meet the needs of multiple products. The constraints are well-defined, and that helps me make critical decisions in a sea of ambiguity.
There are still a lot of judgment calls involved. For example, it is impossible to design a component to fit every possible use case. There are tradeoffs and numerous options. . There are multiple right answers — not just one.
That’s the beauty of it, and that’s what makes the work interesting and meaningful: the balance between order and chaos. My favorite part of design system work is the part that pushes me outside my comfort zone: when I’m questioning the existing system and pushing it forward, extending it to include new features. That’s when the most creative thinking is required.
Hiding behind the system
“I think I’m lazy,” I told my brother the other day.
I’ve found myself hiding from the deeper, creative side of my work. Instead of questioning the status quo and pushing it forward, I rely on past decisions, searching for ways to borrow from the current system.
Why am I avoiding the most interesting part of being a systems designer?
I’m irresistibly, addictively seeking out shallow work. Instead of going deep on projects to improve the system, I’ll fix bugs, do small administrative tasks and reactively respond to messages. I’ll feel like I’m making progress, but I’m not really having an impact.
In fact, I’m actively distracting myself from the subjective, creative problems that I want to work on.
“It sounds like you’re in a place of fear,” he responded.
That hit home. Fear. I am paralyzed by fear of deep, subjective, creative work.
Why am I afraid?
I would rather pretend I am in control of everything. That I have responded to every incoming message, am aware of all my future work, and am somehow available to do multiple things at once. Mentally, I’m constantly raising my head to look around, to stop and question whether I should be doing what I’m doing or doing something else. Instead of just thinking, I think about my thoughts and whether I should be thinking about them. I’m staying in a shadowy world of meta-work.
Subjective work requires going deep. It means focusing on one thing. A flow state is a vulnerable place. It means letting my guard down and putting all my attention toward a problem, with absolute focus. It means accepting that I am finite, and I can only do one thing at once.
But what if I miss something?
Learning to trust my process
I think accepting my limited capacity is the only way to move forward. I’m faced with a daily choice between doing nothing valuable and doing one thing that could be valuable. I have to enter my creative process and trust that I’ll go somewhere.
Trusting my creative process feels like stepping into chaos. I am afraid, yet this is where I find meaning. Jordan Peterson describes this in 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos:
“To straddle that fundamental duality is to be balanced: to have one foot firmly planted in order and security, and the other in chaos, possibility, growth, and adventure…time passes and you’re so engrossed in what you’re doing you don’t notice…it is there and then that you are located precisely on the border between order and chaos.”
I crave this flow state. My most fulfilling work in design systems has been when I keep one foot in order and one foot in chaos — one foot is grounded in the existing system while I explore new possibilities. But how can I trust myself and my creative process?
So far, I’ve found some freedom in trusting that creativity is bigger than me, and I can tap into it. It’s part of being human.
In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron says, “Art is not about thinking something up. It is about the opposite — getting something down…When we get something down, there is no strain. We’re not doing, we’re getting. Someone or something else is doing the doing. Instead of reaching for inventions, we are engaged in listening.”
If creativity is bigger than me, maybe I can trust it. Lately, I’ve been thinking of it as Cameron describes — as something I’m listening to. I listen to the one thought I have next and see where it takes me. I’m finding some flow in letting go of my surroundings and following my thoughts, trusting that they’ll take me somewhere.
This is still super scary, so I also use practical tools to help myself form some good habits. For example, I set a timer and focus on just one thing until it goes off. After a while, I get in a flow state and forget to set a timer. Those are the happiest times.
I’m excited to continue this journey. As I accept my own limited capacity, I can delve into subjective, creative work — the most meaningful kind of work. I can trust my creative process. It is only by venturing into the chaos that I can extend the systematic order I love so much.