What cooking can teach designers

Over the last three years I’ve taken a bit of interest in the world of cooking and the culinary arts. Cooking is more mature and more ubiquitous than what we know as design. And I think that means it can teach us some lessons that can be valuable in the domain of design. After all, a great meal, like great design, is functional, aesthetic, and context dependent. So here are some of the design lessons I’ve learned from the world of cooking.

Taste as you go

This is the cardinal law of the culinary world. Cooking is a dynamic, complex, and at times capricious business. Tasting as you go helps you shape your dish the way you want it to be. It lets you catch mistakes before they become problems and seize on happy accidents that can help make your dish even more exciting.

“Tasting as you go” is a useful practice in design as well. It’s easy to get trapped nudging text on a screen pixel by pixel whilst losing sight of what you are trying to achieve. To counteract that, you need to periodically stop and analyze your designs while you’re designing them. Is it taking shape like you intended? Are there mistakes you can fix? Does something work really well or seem promising enough that it’s worth pursuing more thoroughly?

Tasting raw materials isn’t as useful

Generally when cooking you aren’t going to taste the raw ingredients that are going in your dish. Tasting isn’t that useful so early in the process. In the case of some ingredients, like raw meats, tasting would be quite unwise.

In the same way, when designing you want to be less critical about your work the earlier you are in the process. An ugly doodle on a napkin can gradually evolve into a fantastic piece of design. You simply can’t tell unless you help it take some semblance of shape.

Use quality ingredients

While tasting raw beef won’t tell you what your final dish will taste like, the quality of that beef can determine how you should best use it. It can also predict how good the end results can be. Crappy ingredients rarely make for good food, but quality ingredients at least give you a shot at making a fine meal.

In design, every element, every logo, picture, font, background, pattern, anything that goes into the final design has to be independently of high quality. Bad design “ingredients” can ruin your final work, but quality design ingredients give you a shot at doing something great.

Plan your ingredients

You can’t cook something if you don’t have its ingredients. And you surely can’t create a great design if you don’t know what all needs to go in the design. Having some kind of inventory of what all needs to go into the piece helps you think about how the elements will interact and how they should be arranged to achieve the goals of the design.

Experiment

This goes hand in hand with tasting as you go, and it lets you develop your own unique style as a cook. Substitute ingredients, add an interesting spice, throw in an ingredient in addition to everything else. Do it little by little and taste as you go. You learn what works and what doesn’t work, and every now and again you stumble on something amazing.

For designers, this is especially important for those in a corporate environment where design languages lie stagnant for years on end between design refreshes. Push against the boundaries and try to experiment as much as you can. Better to play around with logo colors to see what works and what doesn’t work than to miss out on design discoveries and knowledge gained from fiddling around with the designs. The desire for excessively cohesive and consistent design language at the expense of learning is overrated.

The desire for excessively cohesive and consistent design language at the expense of learning is overrated.

Use your head, not Google

Once you’ve started the cooking process, you damn well better know what you’re doing. One you’ve tossed the garlic in the pan over medium heat, you don’t have time to pull up your phone and Google the next step.

So, practice and learn your craft. Commit relevant information to memory so you have it when you need it. This also gives these bits of information the opportunity to collide with one another, which every now and again leads to eureka moments. So far, information sitting on the web, and searched through Google hasn’t managed to make spontaneous connections. But swirling around in your brain because you took the time to learn and commit to memory, chances are higher connections will be made, and new ideas will emerge from the soup of information swirling in your head.

Classically trained people can do what you can do, but not vice versa

A classically trained chef who has learned and practiced the fundamentals of the culinary arts can cook up complicated gourmet meals and just as easily make some kick-ass, simple, scrambled eggs. That’s because they combine tremendous practice with codified knowledge. You may be good at making really good scrambled eggs, but if all you have under your belt is practice without training and codified knowledge, the gourmet stuff is going to be extremely difficult to pull off. It’s not impossible, but it’ll be tough.

Pass on your knowledge

I think the biggest thing that’s allowed the culinary world to thrive into the diverse entity that it is today is that every cook, every chef, every baker, every mom and dad who make a meal all at some point pass their knowledge on to other people, be it a recipe, a tip, a technique, whatever. Each new generation then gets the benefit of being able to build on the lessons from the last.

As designers we have to do the same. We have to teach others, pass on tips and techniques. It helps elevate our craft. It has personal benefits as well. It helps us rehearse ideas, knowledge, and techniques that have diminished through lack of use, or just through the passage of time. Teaching others helps us keep the lessons we’ve learned salient, and that helps us do better work.

More than anything, it helps us leave design better than we found it.

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