Should we embrace hybrids and let go of skeuomorphism when looking at creative talent?

As Wikipedia defines it, Skeuomorphism is a design element of a product that imitates functionality necessary in the original product design, but which have become ornamental in the new design.

A good example is the emulation of a mirror click and film rewind sound in a modern digital compact camera. Those sounds wouldn’t be present as those cameras have no moving mirror nor film, but were artificially inserted to create a resemblance with its known predecessor.

There are many other examples one can think of. Fireplaces in houses with central heating. Ornamental door knockers. Mobile phones with old phone ringtones. Instagram filters.

It is a rather common occurrence in the times we live in, where change is a established constant. Skeuomorphism when good is thought to help us understand the correlation between the new and what came before it.

But it can also be a problem and hinder progress. It can be a sign of one’s inability to move one’s perception of a problem forward.

One occurrence of bad skeuomorphism happens in apple’s IOS design philosophy where, for example, the notes apps looks like notepads and address books with stitches. So much so, it may be one of the reasons they’ve fired one of their executives.

More relevantly for the purpose of this post, another example of bad skeuomorphism is the way advertising agencies look into interactive creative talent.

In the past, in the world of traditional advertising, where the output of agencies were basically constituted of press and film, you could produce most, if not all of your work, with the use of 2 areas of creative knowledge. Writing and Art Direction. A line and a look.

So creative teams were formed. A writer and an art director.

With the widening gamut of what an agency can output came change and we’ve understood the need for new areas of knowledge to join the fold.

As a consequence, we’ve added Interaction designers, creative technologists and Social media managers to our creative departments. Creative teams are now bigger than 2 people and more diverse in its constitution.

It was a necessary move and most of the times it works well. But I believe that is still skeuomorphism.

We are still looking at people as specialists that dominate one area of knowledge. We are in a discipline-centric model. Maybe something reminiscent of the industrial revolution and its production lines.

I believe we are entering an era of post-disciplinary creative thinking, where the most exciting talent are hybrids and we are still forcing these people to pigeonhole themselves as something our current processes can deal with. Something that fits our modus operandi.

I, for example, started my relationship with computers at the age of 7 with a TK90X. A knockoff of the British ZX spectrum. Onto which I would type endless lines of code, with a language named BASIC that was for me everything but.

When I was about 13 or 14 years old I started making websites for myself and for friends. For that, I taught myself how to play with graphic design software and how to configure web servers.

I also ran a BBS. I went to university to study computer sciences and later went back for art and design. I then studied and learned a bit about electronics. It was a rich and colorful background that gave me a very nuanced set of skills.

But when I started working I was forced to make a choice. “You are a programmer, that’s why I hired you” is what I heard from my boss on my first job for pestering him to let me do some of the graphic design work. I was being forced to make a choice among all of the tools in my skill set. I could be a swiss army knife but was being forced to be a screwdriver. I ended up leaving that job and went on to build most of my career as a Designer/Art Director.

And like me, there are many others. The barrier between these areas of knowledge is artificially created. We made them up to help us organize things more easily.

I believe we as an industry are missing an opportunity. I would have done much better work as a design/coder hybrid in my first job than I did as a coder or that I would have done as a designer, for that matter. I would have had ideas and made things that a designer specialist wouldn’t and neither a coder or even a team of a designer and a coder. It wouldn’t necessarily be better but it would probably be different.

Most of the exciting work today in the interactive art world is coming out of hybrids. You need only to take a look at the majority of the work linked on this blog and in similar places on the web. A lot of them are the product of one man bands.

When you mix disciplines and skill sets within one brain you get a new skill set. It is pretty much like working with colors. The millions of unique colors in your computer screen are just a permutation of the combination of only 3 different basic colors, red, blue and green. Like with colors, having a coder and a designer won’t give you the same results as if you had a hybrid coder/designer.

And even hybrids will come in different shapes and forms. Not every designer/coder hybrid is the same. One maybe 90% coder, 10% designer. While the other is 35% coder, 65% designer. They will produce different results and come up with different types of ideas. Different approaches to solving the same problem.

And people are made of varying degrees of skill combinations. Someone could be 20% coder, 50% visual designer, 20% interaction designer, 5% game designer, 5% social media strategist.

People’s skill sets are just as nuanced and complex as their personalities. And the reductive simplistic thinking we apply to classifying and deploying our talent pool might be hindering us. It might be preventing us from tapping into more interesting creative possibilities.

Our problems are also just as nuanced. They need 30% design, 30% writing, 15% strategy, 15% UX, 10% social media management.

But we still don’t think about our problems in that way. As they say, when all you have is a hammer everything looks like a nail.

When you start thinking about the nuances of both problems and people, you are probably on to something more organic, more natural and more reflective of our current realities than our existing discipline-based model.

I believe It is time we let go of our skeuomorphic way of looking into creative talent. Let our hybrids be hybrids and allow larger groups to take collective ownership of the creative output.

Maybe we need to learn to be better team crafters instead of relying on immutable processes built on the safety of discipline modularity.

All the illustrations linked on this post are the amazing work of talented artist Irena Zablostska. Pay her a visit.

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