The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality.
His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot”albeit a perfect one”to get an “A”.
Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work”and learning from their mistakes”the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.
Even today, I find myself sometimes in the “quality” group, trying to get it perfect on the first try. I have to remind myself of the two lessons this parable teaches:
1. Don’t drown in the details
Designers seem prone to obsessive-compulsion. We fight over details like kerning, pixel dimensions, and PMS colors. While being meticulous should be every designer’s trait, diving into the details too quickly can drown you. To use a common metaphor, it’s like rearranging the chairs on the deck of the Titanic. Designers, especially juniors, need to be especially aware of this tendency.
Writer Anne Lamott talks about the “Shitty First Draft,” the first piece of writing “where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place.” Like the prudent half of the pottery class in our parable, Anne lets herself put down as many ideas as possible without the burden of perfection. She makes mistakes, but it’s okay, because they are later evaluated and refined.
2. Quality improves with each iteration
Like writing, designing is also a process of generating good and bad prototypes, along with editing and revisions. With each revision, quality increases. Newer software development companies, such as 37 Signals, who’ve embraced rapid prototyping methodologies know this better than anyone. With the success of phenomenally popular and evolving web-apps like Basecamp and Backpack, it seems to work well for online software. I suspect it would work well for other types of design.
It’s now three weeks since I’ve started my new job. Who’d knew thinking about pottery would help me as an interaction designer?