Recent posts

  • Relative readability Why go so big on type? There’s a short answer and a long answer.
  • Excuses, excuses Some people might suggest it’s not worth redesigning a site I only post to twice a year. They’re missing the point.
  • The Optimizer Every designer is wired differently. Some people are idea people, some people are artists. I’m an optimizer.
  • Indistinguishable from magic I love video games. I’m terrible at most of them. But I’m a sucker for a game with a good story.
  • Airport express Recently I learned two things about interaction design and user experience from waiting in lines at the airport.
  • Shouts and echoes There have been some situations lately that have got me thinking a lot about the Internet as a megaphone for personal communication.


19 March 2006

Design sandwiches

When bread gets boring, we make sandwiches. How do you make design sandwiches?

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?


  1. 19 March 2006

    Andrew Dupont

    The way popularized by 37signals is to design the screens first, then write as little code as possible underneath to make those screens work. The good thing about this approach is that the interface design is the fun part, at least for me, and gives me enough of a carrot to do the underlying code.

    I think this is why it’s so critical to love your tools, so that when you’re doing something boring you at least have the comfort of knowing that you’re using a language and an IDE and an OS that you love.

    An iterative approach to coding also makes this easier, since you’re never far enough from the finish line to question the point of it all. In web design parlance, this is called a “live redesign,” which roughly means “I’m too lazy to do this all at once, so the boring pages are going to look weird for a while.”

  2. 19 March 2006

    Jeff Croft

    What’s always amazing to me if how fast things some together once you’ve got an idea. Sometimes I feel like I speed three times as much time sitting in front of a blank screen than I do actually implementing it once I’ve been inspired.

    It’s nice when you’re dealing with a project that isn’t time-sensitive (like your personal site), so you can sit back and wait for inspiration to strike. It’s annoying when your boss asks you to design something and needs it by the end of day and you can’t come up with a great idea. :)

    IOn regard to what Andrew said: it sort of pains me to do anything “the 37signals way,” but I do generally prefer this approach (interface first, technology/scripting/coding second). As Andrew said, though, 37signals only popularized this approach, they certainly didn’t invent it (Apple, for example, has been doing it forever).

  3. 20 March 2006


    Well, my thoughts may not be too relevant as a non-designer, but I think what you’ve just described is the most prominent problem in creativity of any kind (especially that which involves the two-dimensional). There are a good number of intuitive, visual, or simply creative thinkers. But good craftsmanship is harder to come by.

    I think a lot of people have a lot of good ideas. Many of us know enough about cooking to sit around thinking about just what would make a great meal and even how we would do it. But can we say we’ve served that meal to perfection?

    In terms of painting, I took on an idea in December that my craftsmanship is only beginning to realize in visual, actual terms. It took weeks for the idea to become an image, and the image is taking months to graduate to the form of object. The “last mile” you speak of is honestly ninety-five percent of the meaningful effort.

    And I think that though that last mile is stretched not by complexity of content but by simple variation in praxis (buildings are, in practical terms, harder to realize than web sites), it seems success is had by those who treat the last part like it’s 95 percent of the job no matter what. I think once that becomes a discipline, it becomes easier to play serious at any stage.

  4. 22 March 2006


    Wilson, good to have you back.

    I myself revisit the process in the beginning to remember that even though the bread may be stale, it doesn’t change the fact that it was and is excellent bread. This may mean simple tweaks to the interface or finding a way to do the markup that is more intuitive than what you produce in those first moments. Use the details to your advantage. To build upon what Rob said above, that ninety-five percent is work.

    Recently I’ve spent considerably less time doing visual work and working more on the what goes on in the process itself. The work is a different kind of creative, where the visual creativity of design gives way to elegant implementation and algorithms that not only do the job but do it in a way that challenges you.

    Ideas invigorate when they are fresh and new, but I like to think that some of the initial spark still remains in the details.

  5. 30 March 2006


    Dude, I just wanted to say that you have an awesome site. Like… the design is seriously awesome. I love it. Respect.

  6. 30 March 2006

    Wilson Miner

    Thanks a lot!