How to avoid "Mental Masturbation"?

Image source: Cab Ride (Ecstasy)
So what, you may ask, is “Mental Masturbation”?
Well the first logical assumption that comes to mind is procrastination. Actually, though, it’s not quite what I would call procrastination. Let me explain.
A design lecturer friend coined that term over a lunch chat after a major design critique. We noticed that both design students and design professionals have a bad habit of getting into a mode of what he calls “Mental Masturbation”. Though “tongue in cheek” at that time, I have since encountered it over and over again on many different levels.
My friend describes it as follows:

I guess “Mental Masturbation” is a luxury only safe, secure well-to-do adults have time to actually do. I doubt it would lend itself to someone stuck in one of the many wars raging around the world.
86% of the worlds population sadly do not share the luxury of the first world. If I lived on less than $2.50 a day, then I doubt whether I could procrastinate over the merits of a 3mm radius or a 3.5mm radius.
In regard to design and designers, the creative thought is a high level of consciousness which without our profession would not function. It is the Rolls Royce of cognitive energy.
A space where the mind needs to run free, free from pain, hunger, conflict and guilt. As designers we take it for granted that we can generate this mood at the flick of a switch as we enter the office every morning. (Some may do it all the time! ~ DT)
Is “Mental Masturbation” a posh way of saying procrastination? If a decision is difficult to make then normally there is no decision to make. I cant decide between this shirt or this shirt well, the outcome is the same, it’s negligible.

Great explanation and intentionally written to reflect the subject we are discussing.
I would rate this Cognitive Level, my friend is describing, as the next step after procrastination. Where I would define procrastination as the inability to get started on anything, “Mental Masturbation” would be about designers up and running but in a tight repetitive loop.
I would now like to expand it and be a little more specific by giving some situational examples:
1) A designer obsessing over a design concept trying to get it to work and as a result ends up blowing the schedule and budget.
2) Endlessly trying to justify the merits of your design and why it is the best thing to every happen to mankind.
3) Trying to convince even yourself that your design is a good one.
4) Sitting around and discussing the merits of a design, and supporting it by referencing great works of other designers, and/or successful design theories.
5) All the while feeling good and secure and enjoying your new found mental superiority and a sense of achievement.
I think you get the picture? Honestly, this is one of the root causes of very inefficient and ineffective designers.
So how do we get out of this?
1) Write your own design brief.
I have already written about how great a design guide the brief can be for a designer here. Do have a look?
2) Work in a team.
Creative energy and conversation, helps spur a design onwards. Alternative insight helps closes the design options quickly as well.
3) Set tight schedules to avoid Parkinsons Law.
The famous adage that describes how “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”. This is very true with designers, especially during the concept phase. We have a bad habit of sketching ideas over and over again. Check out my “10 Tips for Guaranteed Concept Development Success” for more information for efficient sketching tips.
4) Get feedback and listen to advice.
If A does not like B and vice versa, it is subjective on who the the bad one is. However if A does not like B, and C does not like B, and also D does not like B, then we know the problem lies with B. This same goes for a design. Trust me if most people don’t seem to like it, it is probably not very good. What every it is, get it critiqued anyway. At the very least you will get a different perspective on your work. Oh, do listen to the advice, even if you don’t like what you hear.
5) Support your design through research.
There should be a reason why your design looks/works/feels as such. If there is no reason why, then you better figure why. Use everything you lean in consumer behavior research to help you determine the right path for your design.
6) Get real quick to verify your idea.
Designers suffering from “Mental Masturbation” tend to be all talk and no action. Often times the only way to verify a design is to get real quick. Jump into 3D to resolve a quick detail, or even better, get into the workshop and build a model. It does not have to be a good looking one, but at least a sketch model to get your proportions right. Check out >Think>Draw>Make> to see how this can help you along your way.
7) Big picture thinking but details orientated.
Finally, take 2 steps back, and take a look at the bigger picture objectives. This takes us into a loop, and back to point 1. Having a big picture awareness helps you be aware of what your design needs to do and when.
While this article is targeted to Industrial Designers, I think these principles can apply to designers of other professions as well. In fact, I believe anyone involve in creative thinking, can benefit from these tips. If you like to share your experiences or advice, please do not hesitate to leave a comment?

  • kookimebux

    February 2, 2009 at 2:53 am Reply

    Hello. And Bye. 🙂

  • DT

    July 17, 2008 at 9:29 am Reply

    Hi Shane,
    Thanks for that analogy, I have to say I have not heard of it before.
    However I think designers designing for themselves is a thin line. If a designer is developing a well researched and developed product that a client rejected because of stupid reasons, then I’ll say go for it.
    But it is true, on the other side of the line, it just gets into self gratification.
    Regardless, thanks for stopping by and leaving your comments. BTW have you heard from Takashi?

  • shane

    July 17, 2008 at 9:15 am Reply

    The term musical masturbation has been around for a long while and generally refers to a musician who becomes very technically proficient, loses their sense of purpose and ends up just playing things because they are difficult and they want to impress people. In the same way i think there can be mental masturbation amongst other creative professionals such as designers, where they lose perpective and design for themselves and other designers rather than the end consumer. Possibly typified by too many glossy renderings, over styling and not enough meat and bones.

Post a Comment