The Overnight Design Test

by Tom Kenny (@tkenny)

Are you struggling with a design but you know there’s some promise to it? Or are you so confident with a design you’re creating that you almost have the feeling it’s going too well? The overnight design test is for you.

Constantly looking at the same design you’re working on can cloud your vision on how well the design works or simply how good it looks. Rest, get some sleep and return to it in the morning. This is the closest thing you have to looking at your work with a fresh pair of eyes. You’ll be able to asses it with a fresh mind to better judge the quality of your work.

Use the Overnight Design Test Framework

My general rule is the longer you’ve been working on a design you’re struggling with or feel might be going too well, the longer you need to step back and take a break.

If you find yourself struggling with a design for half a day or more, then you almost certainly need to rest overnight and return to it in the morning. If I realise I’m struggling for too long, trying harder can make things worse, leading to frustration and often questions to myself such as “Am I a good designer anymore? Have I lost it?”. It’s not a pleasant state to be in so I have to catch myself as early as possible and use the overnight design test.

What if a design fails?

Sometimes you’ll wake up in the morning and you won’t be happy with what you see. This isn’t the time to judge yourself. You know you’re a good designer because you’ve done plenty of great work in the past and you’ll do plenty of great work in the future. You don’t just lose the ability overnight. As this is the closest moment you will have to looking at your design with fresh eyes, you will be able to see much more clearly than before and not be blinding by the frustration of the previous day.

You’ll see why it doesn’t work and it’ll be much more straightforward to visualise what you need to do to head in the right direction. That’s what the overnight design test is really about; bringing more clarity to your work.

Overnight Can be Too Long to Wait

Sometimes you don’t even have to wait overnight to gain enough clarity. Going for a short walk or simply taking some time out to read can “reset” your mind and allow you to make better progress with your work when you return.

Experiment to find out what works best for you. If walking isn’t your thing, try going out for a drive or a bike ride. Switching tasks so you’re working on something else can also work. When the weather is good I sit outside and take some time to think or read. Personally, I use a mix of most of the above but walking is my preferred choice as it forces me to keep away from work.

For Developers Too

The overnight design test can also be used when building sites too. If I find myself having difficulties coding something, I know the best thing to do isn’t to struggle on with it but to actually step away from it and return in a few hours or the next day. You can wrestle with a certain task for a couple of hours and not make any progress, then start on it again the next day, only to solve it within five minutes. This has happened to me a number of times.

Occasionally I will unintentionally solve the problem in my head, without really thinking about it, while doing something else during a resting period. This almost exclusively happens when I’m developing (including front-end work) but I do have moments where my mind will “solve” a design problem while walking down the street too.

I use the overnight design test regularly, sometimes multiple times a week and it really helps me to gain enough clarity to move ahead faster with my work than if I didn’t use it, allowing me to get more done and at a standard I am happy with. You should try it too.

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by Tom Kenny

I’m a freelance web designer and front-end developer with over 7 years of experience designing for the web. Follow me on Twitter here.