Slapping the Water: The Power of Revision in Writing and Design

Solar System

I’m almost done with my second week of grad school, but if you don’t count weekends and the first day of class where all you do is go over the syllabus, it’s been five days.

Five days of design instruction, and I’ve already become a better designer.

How is that possible? Technically, what I’ve learned can be summed up in a dozen textbook pages or less, and we haven’t accomplished much in the way of assignments. I haven’t designed and cool posters, or websites, or ever a brochure.

Instead we spent the first four days rearranging dots.

Dots, you ask? Yes, dots. Our assignment is simple; create a sequence on nine paper squares, adding a black hole-punch dot to each square. When we finished that sequence, we made another one, and another one, until we found one we were happy with.

And what did we do when we finished that sequence?

We made another one.

This time, the rules changed. The first sequence had to start with the first dot in the center of the page. The second sequence had to start with the dot somewhere not in the center of the page. The third sequence used scaled dots, aka different sizes, but the first still had to be hole-punch sized and in the center of the page. The fourth used different sized dots and was—you guessed it—asymmetrical, with the dot starting somewhere not in the center of the page.

You get the point. There were five of these sequences assigned, and after four days, we moved on to lines.

So how did this make me a better designer?

Think back to just about any action movie or TV show you’ve ever seen. The hero always goes through a training montage, during which the sage tells them that before they can even touch a weapon, they have to master the basics.

Then, they assign them some seemingly-meaningless task, and we watch (at montage speed) as the hero labors for days or weeks or months or years.

Wax on. Wax off.

And then, surprise surprise, the hero finds that said random repetitive act actually helped him develop whatever superpowers he was looking for.

That’s what my first impressions of this summer semester has been.

I had faith that if I powered through the training montage, it would pay off, and surprisingly enough, today I got a glimpse of how and why.

There’s one primary thing that will make you a better writer, and I have a suspicion that it’s the primary thing that will make you better designer: revision.

“Revision?” you say. “What’s that got to do with Design?”

Bear with me for a second. All writers (or should I say, all good writers) know the importance of writing badly. I could write a ten-page paper just filled with quotes from famous writers, from this century and others, emphasizing the importance of being willing to have a bad first draft, then work from there.

But revision becomes ineffective when you don’t know what you’re revising for. If you do your best work and someone hands you back a paper and says, “Good, now make it better,” you’re going to be a little lost, because you haven’t been given the tools to do better. (This is especially important in English composition classes, but that’s a tangent for another day.)

This is the stack of 5×5 inch papers that I threw out. They weren’t mess-ups, they were just part of the process while I figured what worked and what didn’t. Then, once I found something that sort of worked, I made it better. Or, as my professor said today, “When you’ve gotten something you like, refine it.

When I was getting my bachelor’s, I was taught the importance of an iterative design processes. (Thanks Dr. Walton!)

When working with clients, I’d always come up with several different versions (often too many), so they could let me know what they liked and make suggestions for improvement. I’d also get lots of feedback from whomever was around me: coworkers, family members, classmates, etc.

The problem I ran into over and over again was that I myself didn’t know what I was looking for. I knew that something wasn’t quite right, but I had no way to tell what it was. I didn’t have the tools and information I needed to make a good judgement call.

It’s like if someone handed me an article in German and told me to edit it, when I only know a few phrases.* Or if someone gave me architectural blueprints and asked me to make some suggestions for improving the soundness of the structure, when my understanding of engineering is limited to what I learned years ago in AP Physics.

For both writers and designers, it’s important to learn the tools of your craft, so you can implement them during revisions. Only then do revisions become meaningful.

Today, after five days of instruction and four days of moving dots around on a page for four hours at a time (plus a few more hours over the weekend and after class), something different happened.

Today when I printed sequences of lines, something clicked, and I knew how to start making it better. I looked at my sequence and evaluated it with what I’d learned, what feedback I’d gotten on my earlier versions, and what feedback I’d heard my classmates receive. Before my instructor said a word, my brain had already come up with a list of ways to improve it and I knew what I wanted to change.

It was, as my professor said, becoming muscle memory. Just like Oliver slapping the water, I’m starting with the basics in my superhero training.

*I don’t actually speak any German.

Another wax-on, wax-off moment: pinning pictures to the wall in perfectly straight lines. Actual hell for someone with both ADHD and OCD (like me).

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