What 50 pounds of clay can teach you about design

The relationship between quality and quantity is tighter than you think.

My 3rd year graphic design teacher, Alison Woods, once told me a parable from Art and Fear that’s still stuck in my brain years later:

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 absolutely perfect on the first try. I have to remind myself of the two lessons this parable teaches:

Don’t drown in the details

Designers are prone to obsessive-compulsion. We fight over details like line-spacing, pixel dimensions, and HEX values. While meticulousness should be every designer’s trait, diving into the details too quickly can drown you. Designers of all levels need to be especially aware of this tendency.

Writer Anne Lamott, in Bird by Bird, 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.

Quality improves with each iteration

Like writing, designing is also a process of generating good and bad prototypes, along with editing and revisions. The more you generate and iterate, the more you learn, and the better your design comes. I love seeing this line of thinking popularized and branded as “Agile” or “Lean”. As a result, it’s now a common practice to develop software products using a quick succession of sprints.

Still, our job as designers in the digital age, is to find new ways to generate more options more quickly. We must also seek ways to iterate on these options more efficiently and effectively. The tools we have are insufficient. We need to create new ones, and then iterate on them, too.

This article is based on an earlier iteration from my old blog. I hope this new version is better.

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