The UX of the Art Studio
Thinking about usability when the only user is yourself
Setting up a studio is a quintessential usability challenge: set up a world where the user doesn’t have to think, an “interface” to facilitate creation.
I’ve been painting since I was 14 years old. The concept of having a studio in any form is a requirement for my life. I need my special corner of the world to focus and create something that is truly my own. After many years of setting up many studios, here’s what I’ve learned about the usability of it all.
You’re only as big as your arms
A great studio keeps the most important items within arms reach. What do we hate about sites or apps with poor usability? We hate hunting for the button/link/whatever that might help us do the thing we need to do, only to realize it doesn’t, and now we have to start over.
Even the most spacious, glorious artist studio in the world will have a small rolling table for the artist’s most important and most used items. The artist moves this table with them as they work. The contents on that table are the essentials of their practice.
It terms of UX, your “reach” is the extent at which you’re willing to explore before giving up. When I can’t find the brush I know is perfect for the mark I want to make, I’m left frustrated and having to settle for the next best brush — sometimes creating the next best thing. When I can’t find the button I’m picturing in my head (whether I’ve seen it before or not, i.e. looking for a “Save” or “Cancel” button) I’ll be left frustrated, and perhaps doing the next best thing, or abandoning the task altogether.
Make your menu clear and memorizable
When you’re in the thick of working in fine art, your “menu” is comparable to your tools. Your brushes, your knives, your cups, your water…whatever. Once your tools are set up the right way, you quickly memorize them. In the chaos of creation, you reach for your favorite tool without thinking about it. Only when it’s not there do you pause, look up, and think “Damn it, where did it go?”
How often do we struggle with navigation? How many days or weeks have we debated the right place for My Cart, or Home, or News?
The great debate of redesigns often bottlenecks at the menu or navigation. Could your current menu be easier to memorize? Will a redesign achieve this? There will never be the perfect solution, but these are valid questions with which to probe. While I’m getting tousled on the subway, with one thumb, can I get around your menu without even thinking about it? Could I do it while barely looking at the screen? After the app updates and everything is different, how long will it take to relearn?
Provide simple, flexible tools
To allow a user to create, the fewer and simpler the tools are, the better. If a tool is simple, I can use it for almost any purpose. If a tool is the dreaded “unitasker”, it can sometimes be cumbersome, and hard to learn.
Microsoft Word often comes to mind when I ponder this topic. It really can’t get much simpler than the idea of a word processing program, yet with Word, I often struggle with strange phenomena worth of an X-file: text disappearing, formatting I never asked for, and no clear way to fix it.
I learned studio set-up many years ago at my first lessons at Acorn Gallery, with Jack Highberger and Debra Freeman. It was messy, to the point of pride. It was jovial, and active, with a steady ocean breeze strolling in and out the door. I remember how small the palettes were, clumpy from years of build-up with experiments in color, coming to a dark grey patina resulting only from the equation of hues times years.
The stools were small, making it easy to move aside or move between easels, and comfy for small children. By setting up only the basic tools, with modest abilities to adjust them, Acorn allowed each student to make their painting time their own. The modular set up of the school allows Jack & Deb to move furniture easily for shows and exhibits to transform the space.
Jack’s comfy chair never moves though.
My next studio was at BU. They cleverly set up one palette per easel, on a little arm that swiveled, in case you were a lefty. My junior-year studio had cork-covered rolling walls, allowing me to hang up my tools in whatever arrangement suited me, and I could roll the walls around if I needed more “running feet” of wall space.
In thinking this way, it benefits the UX designer as well. The simpler your experience from the outset, the more room to grow and evolve. Start out complicated? You’ll get Microsoft Word.
Turn the low resources “lemon” into production “lemonade”
For most projects, we feel we never have enough of what we need; people, time, data, money, etc. On occasion, you’re given a tremendous amount of one resource (i.e. team members), but not nearly enough of another (i.e. time). Typically, you’ll have no other option except to go with the flow with what you have, allowing the nature of your resources dictate how you influence success of the project.
For my residency at Cooper Union, I got a HUGE studio space, and since it was at the end of the hallway, it had the most privacy, and was the quietest.
I was immensely intimidated by the gigantic blank walls. Plus, due to the timing of the finale exhibition at the end of the residency (plus moving in/out, etc), I really only had 2 1/2 full weeks of working time, instead of the month I had relied on for a “month-long” residency.
I decided to do something I’ve always wanted to do: lots and lots and lots of ink drawings, especially large ink drawings. They’d be fast, easy to roll up and send home, and push me to go bigger then ever before.
By having ton of space but not much time, I created work that fit what I could do, and wound up creating work I’ve always wanted to do.
You cannot schedule the user’s usage; make it easy to resume tasks
In the last year or so, I’ve pressure-tested my work with several “typical” user scenarios, including this one: imagine Janet, a 28 year-old professional in the waiting room at the doctor’s office. A nurse has told her she has another full 10–15 min left to wait, so Janet pulls out her phone to do ____________.
Fill in the blank with what you’re designing, and if it’s too complicated for Janet to do, it’s too complicated. And we all know most users probably have about half that time when compelled to use their phones for important tasks.
It’s important we emphasize the easy resumption of work. Sites that can email you a link to pick up where you left off, cookies that remember the contents of your cart or last search are commonplace and are the experiences that will win. It’s important we allow users to resume on their own terms too; even for just a few minutes to remind themselves of their status is enough for a user to feel they’re making progress.
This was the most recent UX/studio lesson I learned, but it took me the longest to learn it.
The years after Cooper Union were some of the more difficult ones of my life. Finding the motivation to paint was challenging to say the least. My aspirations for graduate school and a teaching job had failed, and I knew I needed a career change. This meant getting my own place and trying to make space for creating work, while working full-time in a non-fine art field.
For many years in my apartment, I had a studio area in my living room that I forced to accommodate large works. I felt pressure to make big things, because in America, size matters. But as I grew more interested in the UX world, and less in the fine art world, I longed to make work that made an impression on my own soul, as much as others’, due to its craft more than its scale.
Recently, I found myself desperate for light & flexibility, for freshness & rejuvenation. This meant removing all the heavy, large painting work and the tools that facilitate that, and leaving only what was open, portable, and flexible. What I wanted was a space I could walk up to, paint for 10 minutes, then move on to the other tasks of the day, without feeling the taunting burden of unfinished behemoths gathering dust.
Perhaps you’ve read this and felt these were quite obvious lessons. Deep down, as I painted and “UXed” over this last decade, I saw a connection somewhere, but it’s taken me some time to articulate fully.
To facilitate our users’ accomplishing important tasks, we have to get out of their way. If our users are going to return, their return should be welcome and uncluttered. If our users are to improve their lives with the tools we provide, that progress must be entirely their own, at their own pace, in their own time.
We are simply providing the studios in which they make better lives.
The views expressed in this post are that of the authors and may not reflect the views of the agency or company.