Web Development and Creativity
How to Foster New Ways of Thinking and Seeing
By Jen Torchia
It’s a common misconception that coding is black and white. People also tend to think that web development is all left-brain (logical) with no creativity.
I’m here to tell you that creativity is part of what I do every day. When I work on a project, I’m challenged to come up with code that fills a specific need in the cleanest, most straightforward manner, with little to add or subtract. At its best, it can be easily used again and again. To a web developer, that magical mix is how we define elegance.
Finding the most elegant, innovative solutions requires creative thinking. To be creative means breaking patterns, thinking outside of the box, striving to do old things in new ways.
I want to encourage web developers to flex your creative muscles on a regular basis. Being able to clear your mind, get in touch with what brings you joy, take risks, or simply change your routine, are all ways to foster elegance and innovation.
Finding the Creative Spark
Do you know what motivates you? One way to find out is to think about how you feel during each of the different stages of a project. Note when you’re most engaged or exhilarated. Knowing your motivation can help you spark creativity by focusing energy there. In The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering, Frederick P. Brooks defined five areas that delight developers:
- Making things: Taking pride and feeling joy in something you created and can call your own.
- Pleasing others: Praise and thanks from others, whether it’s your peers or your customers, for making things that are useful to them.
- Solving problems: The thrill of fixing a difficult issue, particularly when your solutions are unique.
- Learning things: The satisfaction of becoming more well-rounded and educated, earning a certification or enjoying a class.
- Using tools: Geeking out on new tools, gadgets, and methodologies.
Shake Things Up
Productivity suffers when your wheels spin. Stepping away from a particularly sticky problem clears the cobwebs. The story of Archimedes’ “Eureka!” moment is a classic example of how a break in focus can ignite the creative spark (although taking a bath during the work day isn’t exactly feasible).
Dev Bootcamp, a Chicago-based web development school, requires students to participate in yoga sessions twice a week during the first six weeks of their training. Yoga is recommended not only as a way to relieve the bodily stress of sitting at a desk all day, but to help refresh the mind as well.
A change in scenery, inner or outer, can help your mind “re-wire” itself. Take a walk around the block with a co-worker, play a few rounds of words with friends, or meditate (at LYONSCG we have a room where you can go to “quiet your monkey mind”). If you find it hard to get away, prioritize quick breaks in your calendar. Just make sure to get up and walk away from your desk!
Create a Ritual
If breaking out of your comfort zone is, well, uncomfortable, try embracing routine. Twyla Tharp, one of America’s greatest modern dance choreographers, believes that creativity can be a habit borne out of ritual. In her book, The Creative Habit, she discusses how routines allow us to harness our ambitions, ideas, and passions; while fears and distractions can hinder creativity.
Tharp outlines exercises that can help create these routines, such as naming and facing your fears, learning to enjoy solitude, removing distractions, and carrying your main creative tools with you at all times. Most of us already carry our laptops or mobile devices everywhere, ready for when inspiration strikes. However, Tharp warns against over working and over thinking. Know when to stop for the day and leave something for tomorrow.
Building a Creative Web Development Team
Recently I had an odd problem that threatened to drive me crazy. I turned to my co-workers, and we eventually worked out a solution. We also came up with cleaner approaches to other problems that had been plaguing us as well.
Collaboration inspired not just good code, but good energy. Asking for help and honest feedback from your community can be an enlightening experience. Even the passionate debate that sometimes comes out of our community’s strong opinions is valuable. Offer up your expertise and see where it takes you.
We can foster creativity within ourselves, but we ultimately need an environment in which to use it. Working in teams can squash the creative vibe if it’s not made a priority by team leadership. Here are some ways to build, and keep, a creative web development team:
- Find the innovators. Who among your resources already possesses a creative mind – and has the work to show for it?
- Mix it up. Pair people with varying levels of experience, both in length and in breadth. New students can freshen the outlook of seasoned pros, for example. Be sure to emphasize the value of learning from each other and that each person was chosen for the team for their unique perspective.
- Give the creative process plenty of opportunity to thrive. Schedule time for the team to work on their own project-related ideas. Several studies have shown that formal creative support increases productivity and morale.
- Encourage experimentation, and even failure. The fear of failure keeps things safe. Innovation suffers when the safest route is always taken, so allow for some risk taking. Compartmentalize experiments so they can be quickly assessed and continue following a path as it is deemed successful.
- Ask questions and understand the “why’s”. Understanding the core of any problem can often reveal a simple solution.
My personal definition of creativity when it comes to web development is to “embrace the unknown.” When I open up my perspective this way, I find it a bit easier to step outside the confines of my role.
So, whether you schedule your creative time or allow room for inspiration to strike at any moment, simply acknowledging the need for creativity in an otherwise rigid industry is the first step. Find what works best for you and try not to fear failure. When you open yourself up to creativity, you’ll find a powerful ally.