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How 'work in progress' content took over the internet

Why the design process, rather than the finished product, is starting to get online traction (and views in the millions).

Design by Jean Lorenzo

Profile picture of Angelica Frey

12.21.2022

4 min read

Watching creative ideas come to life can be both exciting and satisfying—regardless of whether one likes to create or just see how the sausage gets made.


There’s no better indication of this than the current popularity of work in progress (WIP) images and videos taking over social feeds. Lately, web designers, digital designers, and online creatives of all kinds are sharing WIP images of their projects across social media, giving up the preciousness of a polished end result in favor of transparent process-sharing.


Consider WIP content design’s version of “get ready with me” videos—and they’re appearing everywhere. On TikTok, designers are creating hyperlapses of their artwork, websites, typography, and digital designs with searchable hashtags that get hundreds of millions of views, like drawing (35.7 billion views), arttok (more than 13 billion views), workinprogress (1.4 billion views), and webdesign (368 million views). Over on Instagram, designers like Erik Carter, Kelli Andersen, and Christoph Gromer are sharing in-process (or even rejected) work. Websites that advertise creative-tech tools such as VSCO, Glitch.io, and, of course, the online art school Domestika, have made work in progress part of their ethos.




Some designers use WIP videos as a new form of creative expression. Joshua David McKenney, who built a cult following for his doll-making brand, Pidgindoll, on Instagram over the past decade, launched the brand on Tiktok during the pandemic. McKenney introduced work in progress content on the platform after feeling that something in his visual communication was lacking—and in doing so, unlocked a new way to express himself, he says. He filmed himself working on sculptural doll designs both on-screen and off it, then provided a voiceover to narrate the process and let TikTok sync his vocal track to a song. “I thought the process was beautiful,” he says. “I felt it was a shame that nobody could see it.” The approach also paid off: Soon enough, his WIP videos garnered him 1.5 million followers, with some videos exceeding 5 million plays.


Creator Joshua David McKenney's WIP videos helped catapult the TikTok followers of his brand, Pidgindoll, to 1.5 million. Screenshots: @pidgindoll.



Graphic designer Freddie Guthrie, who has a comparative 15.5 thousand followers on TikTok, also noticed how process videos can have serious audience appeal. His TikTok tutorial on the inflatable text rendering he made for a Charlie XCX concept cover got 560,000 more views than his original post showing off the final version. Guthrie attributes the success of the tutorial video to its complexity, and to followers’ interest in recreating the effect themselves. “Because it's quite a complex tutorial, lots of people saved it to rewatch later, which TikTok then rewarded by showing it to more people,” he says, adding that the traction of the original video probably helped. The tutorial video had 30,000 saves, compared to his typical rate in the hundreds.



Graphic designer Freddie Guthrie's TikTok tutorial video had 30,000 saves at the time of publish, as compared to typical save counts in the hundreds. Video courtesy Guthrie.



Work in progress content is popular because it helps designers develop their skill sets and grow, according to Wix Studio design lead Vered Bloch. “Every designer should be in a constant state of exploring, in order to learn something new, improve every day, and become a better designer,” she says. This kind of content allows just that to happen in an organic, community-driven way, by giving designers a transparent look behind the curtain of other’s work and, according to Bloch, opening minds to new ways of creating by showing exactly how you can do it yourself.


The popularity of WIP can also be attributed to accessible creative-tools suites urging creators to make their process public. For example, Glitch, a collaborative programming environment, sees work-in-progress content as a core part of their ethos. “We're advocating for an open web, where everyone gets to be a creator, not just a consumer; that building the web is an act of culture as much as an act of code,” says Jesse von Doom, Glitch’s head of product. “So it should all be seen as a work in progress.” This brand ethos also manifests as work in progress aesthetic across in the site’s layout.


Guthrie's final type animation. Image courtesy Freddie Guthrie.



VSCO, the photo and video editing app, has a website that operates with a similar mindset. Just open its homepage and hover on any chosen image to see the “live” application of its presets. Experimentation, in fact, is an important part of the VSCO experience. “Often our customers are looking for that perfect edit that captures the way they see it in their mind,” says Josh Ulm, VSCO’s vice president of design. “Those little animations and experiences help you visualize exactly what you imagine.”


But process-sharing also has some markedly pre-app, pre-TikTok nostalgic elements, which are in line with the revival of early web design. Von Doom draws the trend’s origins to early ‘zine culture and pop culture aesthetics. “I started in the early days of web design,” says von Doom. “It felt less like the magical world of Figma, media CDNs, and modern CSS; and more like stealing the photocopier key from a Kinkos and printing 100 flyers you made with scissors and glue for your friend's shitty band. My guess is that leaving some of the polish off a design lets a bit more of that creative energy through.”


Ultimately, WIP content is a digital humanizer. “It scratches that itch we have to understand how things work, by demystifying the complexity around it: seeing others work through their process personalizes the experience for us and makes it much more relatable,” says Ulm. “There is no substitute for first-hand experience, but third-hand experiences are wonderful to introduce us to new skills, inspiration, and personal growth.”



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