The way to make good things is to make many things.
“The only way to make good things is to make many things.” My drawing professor said that to me on the first day of class during my freshman year at art school. I didn’t understand it. Was he talking about drawings? Was he talking about art? He said it over and over again over the course of the semester. I eventually got it, but it took a while.
One day he walked in to the studio after lunch and strode up to a classmate of mine who was sitting amidst a pile of art books. Many of them were open to full spreads of well-known works of art. She was studying them. He picked up two or three of her books, walked out of the studio, and placed them outside the door. He made several trips before she even noticed what was happening.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
He barely paused before walking away. “Helping you stop wasting your time.”
I became his teaching assistant in my sophomore year. I remained in that job for the next four years (I was on the “five year” plan). Drawing studio courses met once a week for 8 hours, so I’m going to estimate that I spent at least 850 hours in that room. That’s not including the times I returned as a visiting critic after graduating, or the semester I took over his class when he was too sick to continue teaching. All told, maybe a thousand hours. I think I learned more in that room than any other classroom on campus, probably by the very same principle he had introduced to me on day one.
I eventually realized that the point of all of this time was somewhat self-evident. You don’t learn how to make good things. You just make things, and you learn how to see which of them are good. You learn how to see. You can’t do that without having made, and making takes a lot of time. There are few good shortcuts. Practice is an inherently temporal phenomenon.
Now about the girl with the books. My professor wasn’t against looking at great art. Not at all. But he was trying to teach his students to see good art, which is a skill built only by seeing a lot of the opposite, not by looking at images printed in books. We all already agree that they are good. Where are the books of rough drafts? Where are the books of bad art?
This principle extends well beyond the art studio.
Design, for instance. The funny thing about design is that it’s kind of like art, but with a thick layer of pedantry over it and an even thicker layer of fear. On the one hand, we celebrate creativity in design — the vision! the style! — but on the other, we feel we must adhere to some quasi-scientific method. Sure, that idea sounds good, but what does the research show? Where’s the data?
And there’s a place for that. But I’m going to go out on a limb and say something controversial, something I can absolutely imagine arguing against in other contexts. The place for that — that “verificationism” — is often not where everyone thinks it is. You don’t need more facts, you need more confidence, and you need to just do it. You need to believe that your idea is intrinsically worth something — even just a bit of your time so that you can express it enough to get real feedback.
Of course there’s nothing wrong with the rigor that comes with research, with testing, with analytics. We believe that responsible design includes those things for a good reason — because they all compensate for our blind spots and assumptions and subjectivity. But they are not creative. They are the opposite. They are either catalysts or resistors, but they don’t make actual work happen.
You need to make first, so that you have something to put through whatever rigor you feel is necessary. This gets you out of what is far more common than impulsive, unvalidated, bad design: unproductive analysis paralysis. There’s only so much research you can do before you realize that no amount of research will be enough to produce a perfect thing. You’ve got to make a less than perfect thing, let it be used, gather feedback, and then be willing to remake it.
There’s no pre-cog magic for proving an idea before you take a risk on it. You have to believe in the idea, act on it, then measure and be willing to call it a failure. You can’t measure what you haven’t done yet. Some people call this “failing fast” or whatever-the-silicon-valley-lexicon-du-jour. I just call it making.
But the principle is true for more than just makers. It’s true for anyone thinking their way out of a problem. The more you express your ideas (rather than horde them), the less precious they will be to you, and the more willing you will be to let them go when you need to.
Sure, it’s not for everyone, but you know what? It’s for more people than realize it.
Heavy Rotation: Cold, snowy, and icy times call for staying indoors and zoning out to Ambient 1: Music for Airports, Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks, and Discrete Music, all by Brian Eno.
Recent Tabs: “As the stock of legacy code grows, the demand for new code, and thus for high-tech workers, falls.” Oculus and Architects. This is the first space selfie — and it’s awesome. Typography in ten minutes. Tap this drone’s head for the kick drum. Comic artists hard at work. Fashion photographer Richard Avedon captures Dovima posing with an Atlas-Able rocket at Cape Canaveral. Lockheed Martin’s new fusion reactor might change humanity forever. Taken with an iPhone. “Memory can change the shape of a room; it can change the color of a car.” A clock for the anxious. This is a cool logo. Bet it cost more than $5 ;) Finally, “a great reminder that you can raise 300m and still sell for 15m.” Futures of text. “Asked for the secret of her longevity, she responded nonchalantly, ‘I wonder about that too.’”