Steep Relearning Curves

Creative software tools are great. You can do amazing things with those apps and desktop programmes. What was once impossible or prohibitively expensive is now available on your device. If you’re like me, you’ve collected dozens of these useful tools, because they all cover their own creative niche in depth. Whether you’re writing, making music, doing some graphic design, making photographs, drawing, or designing, you probably have several apps that do similar things, but each has one or two special things it does uniquely well. That’s a blessing and a curse.

I find I encounter two recurrent problems, which severely limit my creativity with these apps. The first is that unless I use the app regularly and often, I forget how to do things with them. They all have deep powers, so extensive learning curves, but there is very little standardisation in user experience design. Consequently, I find myself returning to tools I have used many times, but stumbling around to remember how to do things I want to do. Vendors don’t agree on how to do notionally similar things, like saving files, importing them, cutting and pasting. The location of these controls on-screen varies even more widely than how they work.

Maybe I never knew how to operate the tool correctly, to do what I want to do, and fool myself that I’d done this operation before, but I don’t think so. I think we have to reclimb learning curves again and again, almost as if we’re trying things out for the very first time. This destroys creative flow. As far as I can tell, the only cure for the problem is to focus on using fewer tools and use them a lot. Practice makes perfect.

The problem is that even with a favourite toolset, you’re going to need to use a specialised tool, every now and then. At that point, you’ll be a novice again. The issue is exacerbated by the proliferation of third party plug ins. Each vendor has their own slant on creative philosophy and how they think you ought to use their software, rather than conforming to your first instincts about how to do things with it. I’m sure there are options in all my creative software tools that I’ve never discovered, because of this clash of approaches. Therefore, those features don’t exist (or might as well not).

The second problem is keeping a mental note of which app does the thing you are trying to do best, if at all. I find myself opening apps that might do what I need, but then discovering it doesn’t, or that it does, but I don’t know (or can’t recall) how to make it do it, or else I’m not sure whether it does or doesn’t do what I need to do, but I can’t get to a definitive answer. All of this is a massive time vampire, which also leaves your creative flow in tatters.

To add to the challenge, user interfaces evolve. A tool you knew autonomically, in a previous version, is often improved and updated by the vendor in their latest release, to the extent that all of that intuitive familiarity you painstakingly accumulated by using the tool, over the years, is no longer of any use and may actually be a hindrance. The app doesn’t work that way any more. The option was removed for lack of popularity, or reengineered to supposedly make it easier or better. There are new keystroke sequences to learn.

You have to forget what you learnt and learn some other new way of doing the same thing, all the while being vigilant that you aren’t inadvertently trying to apply your obsolete knowledge to the new software release, if you do happen to enter your create flow. Important controls and options have been moved around, or relabelled. I’m newly disorientated, but this is for my own good and benefit, I am assured by the vendor.

This might actually be a third distinct recurrent problem I encounter with creative software tools, now that I pause to think about it. Redesigned user experiences causing loss of creative flow are not the fault of my memory retention deficits, but they are a symptom of infrequent use of the tool, to a degree.

It’s all fun to play around with, if you have the time, but when time is tight (and whose precious creative time, carved out of day-to-day responsibilities, isn’t tight?), then the inability to make your tools do what you want to do becomes frustrating rapidly. That’s a buzz kill that can put you off even trying to create for a long time.

I don’t know what the answer is, other than to factor in time to relearn those steep learning curves at frequent intervals. Taking creative risks means doing new things, so you’re always going to be trying to coax your tools into doing what you need, no matter what. There’s no escaping it. If you want to make artistic progress, you’re doomed to battle with your collection of creative tools interminably. Google and YouTube can be your friends in figuring this out, but they’re time vampires too.

I guess it’s like learning musical scales. Eventually, you internalise them and never have to consciously think about how to play them ever again. But there’s always a new, unfamiliar scale left to learn, isn’t there?

How do you solve this problem?


About tropicaltheartist

You can find out more about me here: There aren’t many people that exist in that conjunction of art, design, science and engineering, but this is where I live. I am an artist, a musician, a designer, a creator, a scientist, a technologist, an innovator and an engineer and I have a genuine, deep passion for each field. Most importantly, I am able to see the connections and similarities between each field of intellectual endeavour and apply the lessons I learn in one discipline to my other disciplines. To me, they are all part of the same continuum of creativity. I write about what I know, through my blogs, in the hope that something I write will resonate with a reader and help them enjoy their own creative life more fully. I am, in summary, a highly creative individual, but with the ability to get things done efficiently. Not all of these skills are valued by the world at large, but I am who I am and this is me. The opinions stated here are my own and not necessarily the opinion or position of my employer.
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