This was originally published in InPrint’s first issue, First Impressions. Written by Cynthia Pu and Emily Luong.
Reinforcing the Marshmallow
The “Marshmallow and Spaghetti Challenge” sounds like the latest, cringe-worthy challenge fad to emerge from the depths of Youtube, but it’s actually an experiment whose results argue that the key to successful design isn’t genius, preparation, or commitment — it’s failing. Over and over and over again.
Peter Skillman, former Vice President of Design at Palm, spent years administering this challenge¹ to different demographics of students — business, engineering, and law majors among them — and recording how successful they were. The premise of the challenge was simple. With a limited amount of spaghetti, string, tape, time, and a single marshmallow, groups of participants had to make the tallest tower they could, topped with a marshmallow. Skillman was surprised when he realized that a certain group of students consistently yielded higher scores than the rest — kindergarteners.
What was it about this challenge that had the five-year-olds excelling well above their college graduate peers? According to Skillman, it was the marshmallow. Most groups underestimated how heavy it was and spent all their time drafting a single tower design that would never adequately support their marshmallow. The kindergarteners, on the other hand, spent almost no time planning and simply created tower after tower, getting familiar with their materials and steadily increasing the height with every failure. This process of iterative design, as you may have guessed by now, reaches far beyond marshmallow towers and is widely used today among all design fields.
Refining Your Vision
Iterative design is just what the name implies. You prototype a design, receive feedback for areas of improvements, and then prototype it again. And again. And again, until you finally end up with the best possible design. The tedious process of failure after failure after failure can be incredibly daunting and exhausting, but this method of rapid or spiral prototyping, as it’s often called in the industry, can lead to more effective results. Iterative design tests for area of improvement from the get-go and prevents a sub-par design from advancing to the final stages of production, where its problems might be too late or expensive to address. With rapid prototypes, you can more easily receive feedback and make improvements sooner in the process. It expedites the design process while simultaneously ensuring a quality product.
James Dyson is just one of many who has taken advantage of iterative design, taking five years and over 5000 prototypes to make the world’s first bagless vacuum. His thought process behind his iterations was interesting, because instead of trying to reach success with every prototype, he almost welcomed failure with each of his new ideas. In an Entrepreneur Magazine interview², Dyson explains, “What I often do is just think of a completely obtuse thing to do, almost the wrong thing to do. That often works because you start a different approach, something no one has tried.” He continues by saying that big businesses often fear the failure associated with iterative design, but that is exactly what can be their key to success. The practice of failure leads to new, innovative ideas, which, in such a competitive society, is the key to differentiating yourself from the masses. A few such risk-takers were the founders of the now ubiquitous coffee company that has taken the world by storm with its Frappuccinos and Pumpkin Spice lattes.
Remodeling the Siren
Currently, Starbucks employees scrawl customer names onto about four million coffee cups per day.³ Each one is emblazoned with the famous, smiling two-tailed mermaid in a sleek green insignia. Nowadays, that crowned siren has reached near international fame, but she didn’t get there without years and years of revisions.
It was 1971, Starbucks was still a neighborhood coffee company and its three prospective founders were looking in slight dismay at the logo they had commissioned Terry Heckler to design for them — a voluptuous siren grasping her two tails and brazenly baring her breasts in a brown seal. Despite their misgivings, they decided to put her out on their storefronts. She elicited a few raised eyebrows, but Starbucks was gaining success. The problem arose when they began branding their delivery trucks. The logo was much larger on the trucks than it was on storefronts, and instead of “Starbucks”, all passersby saw were giant mermaid breasts. When Howard Schultz took over the company, he called Heckler back to make the logo appropriate for mass consumerism. Heckler draped her hair draped over her chest and freshened the color with a bright green so she’d appear more contemporary. Almost instantly, Starbucks became a hit. As the consumer base swelled, they faced more pressure to make the logo family-friendly, so they cropped out most of the siren’s tails and put the focus on her face. The result was the logo and cultural icon we know today.⁴
When the original buxom siren was first presented to the three founders, they had no idea that she would eventually become an international phenomena, but they took that first leap of faith. They didn’t start with a perfect logo, but many iterations later, Starbucks can now boast one of the most recognizable brandings in the world.
Iteration doesn’t necessarily mean simply doing the same thing over and over again. It means exploring as many options as you can by experimenting and refining your work repeatedly. Nowadays, it’s easy to get caught up in our devices and expensive Adobe subscriptions. Don’t lie, we’ve all done it — skipped the sketching and jumped straight into designing on whatever program we use, be it Photoshop, Illustrator, CAD, Sketch, etc. This could be due to designer’s block, a tight deadline (quarter system, what’s good?), or even just plain old laziness. Sophisticated design doesn’t just materialize from you sitting down in front of your laptop and flipping on a switch labeled DESIGN. It comes from brainstorming, sketching, toying with silly ideas, and asking yourself the right questions. It’s also helpful to experiment with different mediums, because trying different tools gives you the element of play, different approaches, and creative solutions.
Practicing iterative design methods is a way to practice failing over and over so you can stop being afraid of failure. Failure after fiasco after snafu allows us to adopt a mindset of doing and making, instead of thinking and obsessing. The process of iterative design is one that doesn’t really ever end, but precisely because of that, we are able to constantly introduce innovation to society. Don’t let designer’s block get you stranded on your first idea; experiment again and again and again. Soon, you might just be as smart as a kindergartener.
1. Skillman, Peter. “The Design Challenge!” TED. 2006. Lecture.
2. Goodman, Nadia. “James Dyson on Using Failure to Drive Success.” Entrepreneur. 5 Nov 2012. Web. Accessed 17 February 2017.
3. Horovitz, Bruce. “Starbucks aims beyond lattes to extend brand.” USA Today, 19 May 2006, usatoday30.usatoday.com/money/industries/food/2006–05–18-starbucks-usat_x.htm. Accessed 17 February 2017.
4. Klara, Robert. “How a Topless Mermaid Made the Starbucks Cup an Icon.” Adweek. 29 Sept 2014. Web. Accessed 17 February 2017.