Learning Design through Reality TV

June 5, 2009 in Notes from the Field

Reality TV has dominated television for the last ten years. While the genre has been widely derided as artificial and sensationalist, the shows provide a surprising educational benefit. Reality programming depicts perspectives, career paths or locations that would otherwise remain obscure. And, the shows provide factual learning as well — I’ve learned a bit about physics from “MythBusters,” psychology from “The Dog Whisperer,” and meteorology from “StormChasers.” But most interestingly, I find myself learning good design practice from the contestants on “Top Chef.”

For those unfamiliar with the show (shame on you!), Top Chef is a cooking competition broadcast on the BRAVO network. The sixteen contestants compete in culinary challenges and face elimination each week. And, to be clear, the contestants know what they’re doing: each of them is a successful, professionally trained chef. The challenges usually have multiple components, testing their technical skills, creativity and composure. For example, in the last season, the chefs were asked to make a full Thanksgiving dinner for the Foo Fighters, but at their concert venue, in a tent, with only a few small convection ovens. The challenges are a bit contrived, but are aimed to mimic real issues that arise in the kitchen. And the results are amazing, nuanced concoctions: Orange-Braised Turkey with Caramelized Shallots, Roasted Vegetable Cornbread Stuffing, Pumpkin Tiramisu, etc.

Putting my food-lust aside, Top Chef has quite a few “design lessons” hidden between the fancy presentation and obscure ingredients. It’s pretty clear that the “rules” that make a contestant successful on Top Chef are the same “rules” that apply to good design work. Sure, they’re working with food rather than technology, but the core ideas are the same.

  1. Listen to constraints
    Each week, the judges on Top Chef are very specific when they outline the challenge: requiring a specific number of dishes, using (or omitting!) a specific ingredient, or producing a particular type of food. The judges have skewered contestants for idiotic oversights like forgetting to make a dish or not providing enough servings. Of course, constraints are a huge part of the design profession. Our work must fit within a size limitation, run on a specific platform, include certain branding theme or unify with existing work.

As the wedding challenge demonstrated (“Something Blue” doesn’t literally mean blueberries) there is always room for careful re-interpretation. Design challenges, like cooking challenges, can be “reworked” to go in directions that the clients never anticipated. Pick your aphorism (“Creativity loves constraints!”), but the best practitioners find a way to make something great by drawing within the lines they’ve been given.

  1. Use quality ingredients
    Like the computer science adage “Garbage in, Garbage Out,” there is no way to make a premier dish using weak ingredients. The judges, like any good client, know what they’re looking at and what they’re looking for; they can easily distinguish a mediocre frozen scallop from a succulent fresh one. A corner that’s been cut for cost or time savings, is visible from a mile away. And no amount of fancy preparation, unusual spices or presentation panache can cover a weak protein.

The same principle holds true for design. There are no quick substitutes for quality ingredients like rich contextual research or fresh insightful analysis. There are notable exceptions in Top Chef (e.g., contestants made appetizers from vending-machine ingredients in Season 2) and in design (e.g., Graypants’ gorgeous furniture made from scrap drawings and used cardboard). In general, the better the inputs, the better the eventual product.

  1. Eat your own food
    Many of the Top Chef challenges push the contestants into unfamiliar territory, with specific cuisines (e.g., Russian, Vietnamese), dishes (e.g. soufflé, lasagna), or courses (e.g., appetizer, dessert). And the key to performing well is a user-centered design staple: constant iteration.

In the show, chefs often start with a recipe they know well and make modifications to fit the challenge. Last season, both Ariane and Fabio won challenges by serving variations of what they serve in their restaurants (Watermelon Tomato Salad and Beef Carpaccio, respectively). Those repeated iterations, long before Top Chef begins, make these dishes standouts. But even small iterations, during the competition, can have a huge impact. Judge Tom Colicchio repeatedly asks the failing contestants if they’ve tasted their own food (they usually haven’t). By tasting and testing their own food, they can evaluate and revise it repeatedly before it reaches the judges’ table: adding spices, reducing sauces, changing quantities, etc. Budgeting time and energy for those micro-iterations would have saved a few contestants from the chopping block.

Knowing how to test and what to change are essential skills, in the kitchen or in the studio. The first version of anything we design (or cook) is rarely the best option – it’s simply a prototype to start from.

  1. It’s not about you
    In this show, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Regardless of how clever the idea, stylish the presentation or complex the preparation method, it has to taste good to the judges. Over the course of the show, the best contestants learn from the “customer feedback” (i.e., avoiding certain flavors the judges disdain, like cilantro). Despite their unique cooking styles and predilections, the chefs learn to cook what “sells” with the judges because it keeps them in the game.

Design work follows a similar pattern. Unlike pure art, design is made for a specific functional purpose: it must satisfy the stated goals and survive in the competitive marketplace. The “customers” have infinite options and each of their tiny purchasing decisions ultimately determines which products succeed. In both venues, the end “users” are the true arbiters of value; the challenge simply provides a “marketplace” for comparison.

  1. Don’t play it safe
    While Top Chef has its share of bad ideas — Radhika’s “Guacamole Mousse” spring to mind — the successful chefs rarely play it safe. Even if they use a recipe or a genre they’re already familiar with, they find creative ways to make the food feel new. They add interesting ingredients, play with a new preparation method, or combine two dishes in an unexpected way. And certainly, facing the same judges every week, the “timid” chefs (e.g., sticking to Spanish dishes, only using scallops) are quickly revealed.

The same ideas hold true for design work. While iteration and tweaking is important, fresh creative work is crucial. Clients embrace wild design ideas, because they can be “tamed” into realistic concepts. It’s much tougher to remedy safe, boring, expected work and amp it up into something more exciting. We should all make the design equivalent of “Guacamole Mousse” occasionally, just to test the boundaries and shoot the moon.

  1. Skills and experience matter
    Like any creative profession, technical skills and field experience are crucial. While the contestants are all successful chefs, we watch the seasoned veterans pull ahead in season after season. Chefs with catering experience know what can be made ahead of time, in bulk, and still taste remarkable; chefs with long restaurant histories have a wide array of recipes and genres in their repertoire. And, the experienced chefs have the technical chops to boot: they make slicing, chopping, whipping, broiling, baking, flambé-ing, braising look easy (or at least, efficient). On the flip side, we see rookie mistakes every season: crème brulee that can’t set properly in the available timeframe, olive blintzes that chill before they’re served, or artichoke appetizers that turn rancid with a wine pairing. The newer and younger chefs have great ideas, but they are missing the production skills to execute them perfectly.

Certainly, there is a design corollary here, for both practitioners and clients. Core technical skills like drawing, observation, and prototyping are the building blocks to design work; they provide a toolkit for working through the tougher design challenges. And, like tested recipes, our past design work (both successes and failures) informs our work process. Experience in a particular domain, with a specific user base, or on a similar product helps to outline the potential solution set and identify opportunities. There’s an obvious learning for clients here as well: better food (and a better design solution) comes with experience. When you’re looking for a chef (or design partner), find someone who can demonstrate a pattern of success and has the depth to deal with any unexpected hiccups. You wouldn’t hire an inexperienced caterer for your wedding: those same “hiring rules” apply for quality design work.

The next season of Top Chef, slated to air on June 10th, is called “Top Chef: Masters.” It features a group of world-renown chefs (including several celebrity chefs featured as judges in past seasons). With any luck, we’ll learn a few culinary terms, pick up a new dinner idea, and spread the design ethos, all in less than an hour. The wonders of reality programming!

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