FN2N, part 4 | Design Process 2: Innovation

Image copyright: Ahmad Safarudin. Available from dreamstime.com | ID 183908355

Last week I talked about inspiration and finding out what gets you fired up – what makes you care, where the sources of your ideas might spring from, and how you connect with other people.  If inspiration is finding your voice, then innovation and development is the first stage of learning how to speak.  Without good, well-developed ideas, you will have nothing.  Your perspective and creative potential is unique and irreplaceable, so nurturing it is vital.  After all, you’re a designer!

Innovation takes time, and one sign of a designer under pressure or simply producing too many patterns is sameness.  If you need more time for design development, take it – it will be worth the investment; if you have no idea how much time you’ll need, don’t give yourself a deadline and work on things quietly.  Don’t tell the world about your plans just yet.  Attrition is no joke, especially when you might be juggling lots of roles or thinking about training and development – as many independent designers are.  My advice is to allow yourself time and space to realise your ideas and milk them for all they’re worth.  Over time, you will realise that your imagination is the reason why people love your work.  Knitters who love your designs can’t wait to see what you come up with next; your ideas are what keeps your head above water and gets you noticed.

If you haven’t yet published anything, begin to think realistically about how many good designs you can release per year on a long-term basis.  Too often, new designers are full of beans and want to release new patterns every month, for example – this is great for novelty, and could work if you decide to design a line of small quick-to-knit projects.  However, life is life, and you need to give yourself breathing space to work around your other commitments.  Think about creating a seasonal, quarterly or annual release schedule that gives you time to do a good job and fans of your work time to savour each project.  Keeping up with new releases can be overwhelming, and designing is a process with a capital P. Create sustainable and responsible habits so that you don’t burn out.

Setting up an editorial calendar is an excellent idea. There are many templates in Excel and Google, and you can customise them as you like. It’s helpful to get an idea of how much time things take to design and what you can expect to publish within a year.

A word on stitch libraries

These are marvellous resources, compiled with lots of care and diligence to preserve ancient patterns.  There are many available, too many to list in this post, but the most comprehensive collection is compiled and edited by Barbara Walker.  Her Treasury of Knitting Patterns comprises four volumes, sits proudly on my bookshelf, and I have been recommending the Treasury to knitters for several years.  It is well worth tracking down a few different ones to see what they offer.  Other larger stitch libraries include the Harmony Guides and Japanese stitch patterns.  There are many editions of these, so don’t discount older or second-hand copies.

One loud warning note: Do not rely on them.  You will bore and frustrate yourself and prospective customers.  It is absolutely fine to dip into them for favourites, textures that fit in with a theme that’s inspired you, secondary research, or use them as a starting point for innovation, but don’t use them as a crutch.  They’re in the stitch library because they’re well-loved classics – and that typically means that many knitters will be familiar with them.  Make sure familiarity doesn’t breed contempt!  There’s nothing wrong with loving and using the classics, but part of the skill of knitwear design is mixing and remixing, finding new joys in a prehistoric craft and giving it a fresh look.

Once upon a time I worked for a yarn company, and their usage of an intricate lace panel called ‘Frost Flower’ in Barbara Walker’s collection became a running joke!  You could bet money on it appearing in the spring/summer offering, which was an utter glut of publications.  In fact, every season was marked by an overwhelming array of pattern books, and it was just impossible.  I haven’t checked their recent collections to see if it’s still there, or if they finally feel that it’s been completely rinsed out…but part of me already knows the answer 😉.  If you do buy Barbara Walker’s Treasury of Knitting Patterns, and can make a mischievous guess at my past employer, several of the stitch patterns will be remarkably familiar.  Quality over quantity works every time, especially for a slow craft like knitting.  Whatever you design will take several hours to make and be part of someone’s life for many years to come, so do everything you can to make it count.  Don’t be that yarn company!

The front cover of my copy of Barbara Walker’s Treasury of Knitting Patterns, the first of four volumes. The Frost Flower stitch pattern design is featured on the front cover. Recognise it from anywhere?

Another important point is that there is usually more mileage in one design idea than you think.  There’s a lot to be said for squeezing the living daylights out of one burst of inspiration.  One of the most valuable skills I learnt on my design course was how to generate and develop ideas, and to do this you need to be mentally flexible and comfortable with letting your imagination run riot.  In last week’s post I mentioned brain dumping ideas that have yet to take form, but one tendency that sometimes pops up with design students is fixation on what they believe is a fully formed idea.  They can see it in their minds, and by gum they will realise it exactly as they imagine!  Sometimes it can work like that, but the strike rate is MUCH lower than you think. 

Stubbornness has one of two outcomes: either your inspiration well rapidly runs dry, or you’re a pain in the **** to work with.  Regarding the latter, feedback at the development stage is like gold dust; when people give you constructive feedback, the clue is in the name.  Build on it and make your design stronger; constructive feedback only feels like an attack if you’re insecure about something.  If you’re comfortable with the sound of your own voice, you’ll be able to hear helpful comments from people tuned into what you’re doing.  Remember, you only get feedback if you’re worth a response (I will return to this in a later post).  Get into the habit of thinking that there’s always more where that came from, and it will serve you well.  There is ALWAYS more to be had from an idea.  Push and stretch yourself: “What if…?” is the question I ask myself most often when I’m designing.  A few examples: test out different colour combinations, placements or arrangements; play with scale and proportion of the pattern repeat; tinker with the overall silhouette…and so on.  Again, mixing and remixing is what it’s all about.

Exercises like that force you to think about what makes your design idea successful, or establish exactly what you do or don’t like about it.  Zooming in on this gives you the ability to evaluate your work objectively and allows your confidence to grow.  Incidentally, understanding why things do or do not work bestows another gift: how to rescue or tweak ideas that don’t turn out exactly as you hoped.  Some ideas are binned far too early because people are too impatient, trigger-happy, or unprepared for the volume of work involved.  Whether you like something immediately or not, take a step back or take a break.  Think of an artist in front of a canvas; note how they periodically step back to evaluate their work from a distance.  If you’ve ever taken a life drawing class, your teacher will have encouraged you to do this.  It can – and does – take days, weeks, months or even years of working on a project to bring it to fruition.

I have a future post planned on some of my favourite design books, but one I will recommend now is The Art and Color of Design by Maitland Graves (AbeBooks link, but widely available).  It’s an oldie but a goodie, and served as the foundation for many relatively modern books on design development and artistic composition.  There is something for every designer in here, regardless of their experience or what their discipline or specialist area is.  Graves was one of the first people to articulate what makes visual design work, and there are numerous exercises if you need a bit of help or aren’t sure where to begin.

Can you now see why it’s so important to find your own voice as a designer?  Nobody else on the planet has an imagination like yours, nobody.  You owe it to yourself to invest time in developing your creative potential, whether you’re new to the game or if you’ve been working professionally for some time.  If you understand and do this well, you won’t worry about feeling insecure, being too distracted by what other people are doing, or using stitch libraries as a crutch.  It takes a lot of love, time and energy to generate something out of nothing – once again, manifesting an idea is a Process with a capital P – so make sure you give yourself enough love, time and energy.  If you haven’t already gathered by now, creative processes are intensive!  A moment ago, I cautioned against being trigger-happy, but feel free to fire several bullets into the notion that ideas pop out of designers’ heads fully formed.  It’s just not true. And when ideas are settled, there are still plenty of choices to make and things to think about. More about those next time.

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