19 March 2006
There’s this amazing bakery in my neighborhood. They make the best bread in town, the kind of brick-oven crackly-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside bread you see cooling on the tables of humble peasant homes in European period movies.
Every now and then Laura will send me out to pick up a loaf if we’re having guests or making breakfast or pretty much any other excuse we can think of. Invariably, I will unwrap the twister on the bag and eat the first slice before I get through the bank parking lot across the street from the bakery.
It is so good, that first crusty slice. It has all the flavor of the not-quite-burnt crust, and just a hint of the soft, yeasty texture of the bread. It doesn’t need butter or jam or a stack of roast beef and mayo. It’s not an ingredient, or a starting-off point for something that’s going to be delicious, it is delicious, entirely on it’s own. It’s bread. And it is so good.
It’s the same thing when I take the first pass at a new design idea. Once I start thinking about it, I can’t wait to work it out on the screen. I started thinking about the redesign for this site while I was in Austin at SXSW. Once I started seeing it come together in my head, I couldn’t help myself. I was sitting there in the middle of fascinating panels hunched over my laptop moving boxes around in Illustrator.
It’s exciting, that first step of seeing a new idea come together. It doesn’t matter yet if it will “work” or not. The practical or technical aspects don’t really matter. The finished product doesn’t even really matter. You’re not constructing yet, you’re conjuring. The process is gratifying just on its own.
Once I get the bread home and we’ve raced to eat the first couple of slices, we start to get creative. We’ll eat it for dinner with garlic and olive oil, or buttered with eggs and sausage for breakfast. By the end of the first day, the first half of the loaf is usually gone.
After that, the rate of consumption slows down a little. It’s good bread, but there’s only so much bread you can eat on its own, just bread. Maybe we’ll make some sandwiches with the rest in a couple of days. Maybe the last few slices will be too stale to be worth eating by the time I get to them.
After that first rush of trying out a new idea, sometimes it’s hard to stay motivated. Maybe you get interrupted halfway in the middle of the flow and by the time you get back to it, you forgot what you were so excited about. Maybe it just doesn’t come out the way you pictured it.
Even if it comes out perfectly, there’s always a point where the process stops being about playing with a new idea and starts being about the making it work. How are you going to apply the design to the 10 other page templates? How are you going to code up the HTML? How are you going accomplish this affect in the CSS? How is this logo going to reproduce in 2 colors, or black-and-white?
The practical challenges can be interesting too, from a problem-solving perspective, but when it comes down to it at some point you’re not playing anymore, you’re working. I often have a tendency somewhere along this curve to want to wrap it up. Just take what I’ve got and finish it. Plug the rest of the content into the same layout, flatten the logo, and get it out the door.
The idea is to move through the practical part so I can get back to the exciting part with the next idea. If I have to clean my room before I go outside again, I’ll just shove everything in the closet and everybody’s happy. It’s so tempting. And I’ve given in to it more often than I’d like to admit.
The reality of it is, of course, that the practical part of a design project is just as important to its success. It’s the details that make a great design stand apart from a good one. It’s the revisions and the polish and the things that got added or taken away at the last minute because the designer learned something new at the very end of the process that changed the whole idea.
By giving in to the temptation to rush through the boring part and get it out the door, we’re creating an innovation plateau where there should be a peak. If design is only fun for us in the “idea phase”, we’re closing ourselves off to an enormous potential for inspiration. Which means that in the end, we’re not realizing the original potential of the idea that got us so excited in the first place.
So what do you do to stay in the game? How do you stay excited about the last mile as you were about the beginning?
When bread gets boring, we make sandwiches. How do you make design sandwiches?