Always happy, never satisfied

Why I’ll probably never design anything I’ll like

I recently watched a documentary called Valley Uprising. It featured a group of climbers who dedicated their lives to being the best possible climbers they could be. It showed how they pushed each other to be better and how they honed their skills on El Capitan, a massive 3,000 feet vertical granite rock in Yosemite National Park. They first climbed El Capitan in 1958. It took approximately 47 days in an expedition style using fixed ropes, linking established points along the way which allowed the climbers to ascend and descend over the course of 18 months. The second ascent was in 1960. It was the first continuous climb and took only 7 days. In 1975 ‘El Cap’ was climbed in a single day. The current record? An incredible 2 hours, 23 minutes.

I always feel unsatisfied by pretty much everything I design or make. The final product never quite seems to live up to my expectations for a number of reasons (this article included). It’s similar to the feeling I got when I finished The Sopranos or The Wire, kind of… empty. I’ve been told that I hold myself to a pretty high standard, and I know nothing is ever perfect, but surely I should be capable of making something I like, right?

“I feel like I can do better things, and I want to do better things. I’m curious what I can do” Alex Honnold

The cause of my perpetual disappointment has been bothering me more than usual lately. It is both a blessing and a curse which has led me to think about the world that I live in, a world where (almost) nothing seems extraordinary or absurd. People can climb enormous mountains in a couple of hours, companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin launch rockets into space, then bring the same rockets back to earth and land them vertically on boats that are actually drones and where uncomfortably ambitious, world-changing ideas such as self-driving cars, balloon-powered internet and solar tiles are within grasp.

With all these amazing ideas and experiences I sometimes find it fascinating just how average extraordinary has become. Time and time again we see the unimaginable become mundane and I feel its this abundance of brilliance that is helping drive my ever increasing expectations. As humans, we naturally want the very best, but even with so many excellent products available, I can’t help but find myself increasingly underwhelmed. When I use a product for the first time, I except it to be nothing short of excellent right from the start. I expect it to be great to use and to add immediate value. I except it to do all the things I want it too do, at the time I expect it to do them, and then I end up transferring these expectations to myself and my own work because my human brain is conditioned to judge new things based on the context of its past experiences.

As humans, we tend to judge product quality on just a few main criteria. Utility, trust and performance. Is it useful? Can it help me perform a task better, quicker or with reduced friction? Can I trust that it will always do this consistently and that I will know how to make it do what it’s supposed to? Do I enjoy using it? We can also be incredibly fickle which often results in dishing out harsh and swift judgment for new or redesigned products.

“You’re either making something great, without exception, or your not” 
Elon Musk

When trying to maintain some level parity between the things I make and the expectations I have, there is one skill above all else that I’ve found to be the most powerful. Product success lives or dies by acquiring users and keeping them. This means that people have to start happy and stay happy and the best skill I’ve found to be able to have any chance at making a product that does this is simply the art of giving a shit. Giving a shit about what I make, how I make it, why I’m making it, and who I’m making it for. Good enough just isn’t good enough and we have to constantly be raising the bar. We have to think big and dare to fail and we have to push ourselves and each other to be the best we can be, just like the climbers on El Capitan. This can be hard work, and exhausting which is why it’s important to love what you do. As a designer today, if you don’t love, and I mean really love what you do, you should probably go and do something else.

So while I’ll probably never design anything I’ll like ever again, if you give a shit and be a craftsman you might just make something you’re proud of and that people will love.