"It's that anonymous person who meanders through the streets and feels what's happening there, feels the pulse of the people, who's able to create". ― Cyndi Lauper
For as long as I've been a professional Designer, I've had the nagging sensation that every moment spent at a desk in front of a computer amounts to the weakening of my skills through attrition. There's no arguing that the monitor is dicing away at your eyesight and the keyboard (even the most elegantly ergonomic ones) are ruining you for decent handwriting forever. These are the physical pitfalls of the profession, and we deal with it by donning designer glasses (perpetuating the stereotype) and with ingenuity to escape the hand cramps.
What concerns me more is the blurring boundary between reliance on the tools of the trade, and those very tools adopting the tricks of the trade for us. No, I'm not about to launch into a rant against the laziness of the millennial designers (because that would be hypocritical) or the evilness of Apple or Adobe, or Microsoft (that would be a time sink).
What I'm pondering stems from a recent comment a colleague made, and one that I've heard throughout my career; "Man, you are never at your desk. How do get all your work done?"
The answer is, of course, I'm a mad genius.
Ok, you're not buying that. Nor am I suggesting that I possess some superpower that allows me to connect with my hardware/software through telekinesis and deliver the goods on time, every time. But the truth is also not so far off from fiction in the sense that I am rarely at my desk, yet I do manage to output with consistency – every time, on time.
You see, I'm a wanderer. No, not in the Caine in Kung Fu: walk from place to place, meet people, get into adventures sense, although that particular daydream creeps in from time to time. I do, however, raise from my swivel chair and walk from colleague to colleague, distracting them from their spreadsheets, enticing them into mindless banter or a nervous laugh. I'm well aware of the perception (especially in a corporate setting) that a few in senior management have of this behavior.
"So you decided to be a bum."
I'm not expressing disdain for or even shaking my head in a "you poor sheep" kinda' way at those who can clock in, sit down, eat lunch and clock out with only minor breaks for personal matters to draw them from their desktop utopia. On the contrary, I admire their work ethic, I truly do. But it's just not me.
The actual "work" gets done in fits of fumbling around with my hardware/software, often in the last few hours of the workday. It's then you'll find me at my desk, in the zone, under the gun. It's always been this way. Every moment away from my desk is improving the "work" that will come out of the frantic mouse movements when everyone else is getting ready to call it a day.
The point is, good design – truly insightful, inspired design – is born out of observation. Gestures and utterances, colors and patterns, laughter and lamenting, copious mistakes and minute details; insight gleaned from your environment can not be transformed from inside the bubble of the personal workspace. Escaping the confines of the cube or office is what keeps me sharp, on the edge, where I gotta' be. Ok, that's dramatic, but the sentiment rings true. When I'm interrupting my co-workers or taking laps around the upstairs offices, I'm not procrastinating, lollygagging, shirking or even socializing. I'm discovering, and every bit of what I uncover will end up enhancing the designs that dislodge themselves when I eventually don the headphones and plug into the tools.
These are the tricks of the trade that the tools, the machines, will never be able to reproduce. Not precisely anyway. The algorithms may eventually be able to act autonomously on what we feed to them, but when the day comes that machines can wander up to the water cooler and pluck inspiration from a conversation about Game of Thrones or NCAA tournament upsets, that's the day I will wander off like Caine in Kung Fu. I don't see that day coming anytime soon.