Quantity vs. Quality in a Design Process

Published on Author Christopher Fahey16 Comments
nextcube-maccube.jpg

The NeXT Cube and the Apple Mac Cube. Are they iterations?

Discussing his upcoming biography of Steve Jobs, author Leander Kahney describes Apple’s prototyping process:

It’s a process where they discover the product through constantly creating new iterations. A lot of companies will do six or seven prototypes of a product because each one takes time and money. Apple will do a hundred — that’s how many they did of the MacBook. Steve Jobs doesn’t wake up one morning and there’s a vision of an iPhone floating in front of his face. He and his team discovered it through this exhaustive process of building prototype after prototype.

Clearly Jobs wants to see his team exploring hundreds of prototypes of his products before a final version is sent to manufacturing. But when asked in a video interview about his experience hiring the legendary graphic designer Paul Rand to design of the NeXT logo, Jobs said he admired the fact that Rand (perhaps arrogantly) proclaimed that Jobs would only get one logo for his engagement fee. Rand would not show Jobs a menu of variations to choose from, nor would he show a selection of rough drafts and allow Jobs to provide feedback so that Rand could go back to the drawing board to produce a final candidate. There would be no process at all, no open exploration — Rand would simply give Jobs the best logo he could provide, and then Jobs could take it or leave it.

Why would Jobs admire Rand’s process so much when he runs Apple’s design team in exactly the opposite fashion? Is it simply a matter of Jobs being a sucker for Rand’s monumental ego (and, of course, his stunning track record) while still being a absolute monarch with his own internal team?

This touches on a bigger issue in the design profession: When should a design process spend time on a broad exploration of many options, and when should a designer or design team focus on perfecting a single promising idea?

My inclination is almost always to explore as many options as possible, only settling on a final direction when practical constraints force me to get busy finishing the product.

Of course, this is just one school of design. Clearly many other designers prefer to finish their explorative thinking early and to then invest the bulk of their effort on perfecting the product. Still other designers are simply incapable of coming up with more than a small number of ideas — or they are temperamentally prone to become extremely emotionally attached to their earliest ideas.

In which contexts is a quality-based process actually preferable to a quantity-based process?

16 Responses to Quantity vs. Quality in a Design Process

  1. In addition to what felix says, there’s also nothing in Kahney’s text that implies Jobs has involvement with every single iteration of prototypes.

  2. @felix @julian Both make good points. I am sure you are both correct.

    @felix: I’m sure you are correct. There is a difference between the designer-as-vendor aspect of the process (the point where the designer and customer intersect) and the designer’s personal process of moving from quantity to quality.

    That said, I think I intended my question to function on both internal and external levels — as an individual designer we have an “internal boss” who helps us choose the best option from among many. When does that boss kick in for you? Does the internal boss tell you to go back to the drawing board repeatedly?

    @julian: I have made the common mistake of using the word “Jobs” to represent Apple’s management and process in general. Apple of course has layers of hierarchy. Jobs himself may physically touch a dozen prototypes even though the design team actually builts hundreds, most of which are weeded out before ending up in Steve’s hands. Which is in itself an editorial process. So, yeah, Jobs supports and endorses an enormous amount of exploration, but presumably expects some of his underlings to reduce that quantity a bit, and to refine the quality of each, before wasting his time evaluating them himself.

    So just as Jobs expects Rand to do many sketches and only show him one, he also expects his team to do many prototypes and only show him a few. That said, I’ll bet he would have loved to have seen Rand’s alternate ideas in addition to Rand’s recommendation.

    And of course, Jobs always had the option of not using Rand’s logo at all and to hire someone else to do it.

  3. Also: Is using the word “iteration” necessarily correct in this context? If I create ten versions on the same day, many of which are explicitly conceptually different than the others, are they “iterations” or just “variations”? If I ask five designers to create their own concepts at the same time, are these “iterations”? To me

    It seems like a quantity-based process can involve both variations and iterations. Building a model, testing it, and then iterating it is pretty straighforward. I think it’s the variation process, where you create different versions just for the sake of having different versions, that is more controversial in some design contexts.

  4. “So just as Jobs expects Rand to do many sketches and only show him one, he also expects his team to do many prototypes and only show him a few. That said, I’ll bet he would have loved to have seen Rand’s alternate ideas in addition to Rand’s recommendation.”

    While that may be true of some people, I’m not sure it’s necessarily true of Jobs.

    “Also: Is using the word “iteration” necessarily correct in this context? If I create ten versions on the same day, many of which are explicitly conceptually different than the others, are they “iterations” or just “variations”? If I ask five designers to create their own concepts at the same time, are these “iterations”?”

    A very good question. I think that every time you create a variation you have learned from your previous work. Whether you intend it or not, you’ve learned and are attempting to improve upon certain aspects of the prototype. By some definitions this would mean that single-designer-created “variations” are actually also “iterations”. But is picking this semantic nit worthwhile? I’m not so sure.

  5. Wasn’t the NeXT computer a business failure? That interview was done in 1993 when NeXT still seemed viable. Maybe Jobs is of a strongly different opinion today _because_ of his experience with NeXT.

  6. I think experience plays a large part in efficient design. The more experienced the designer, the less truly varied approaches they need to explore before finding one they can take forward (in collaboration with a team – and again, the more trusted and experienced the team, the better the results of further collaboration).

  7. Fascinating question, Chris.

    I would add that a logo isn’t interactive in the same way that a computer is (what could be more interactive than a computer?)

    The difference, which is also the difference between graphic design and web application design, is that one needs to interpret user commands, process them, and change state accordingly.

    Also, the Next logo is not one of Rand’s better works. Perhaps a few iterations would have helped?

  8. I’m a jewellery designer, but the design process is similar, so I’ll throw in my two cents.

    It seems to me the biggest deciding factor in how many choices you are going to offer a client is going to depend on the interaction you get from the customer. If they don’t want to mess around with ideas, presenting them with too many options probably isn’t a good idea. The same is also true if they’re a very indecisive person.

    On the other hand, if they want to feel like they’ve directly contributed to the process (a kind of “collaborative” effort as some customers I’ve dealt with sometimes see themselves involved in), given them a few options is a way of throwing them a bone, and it might even save time on unnecessary revisions. (Anyone else here ever had a customer request a change just to feel like they’ve “had their say”?)

    I’m willing to bet Paul Rand probably sized up Jobs during the initial consultation, figured out how Jobs liked to work, and decided how to handle him in a way that would give Jobs what he wanted and keep him happy.

    As one of my teachers once said to me: “The most important skill in conversation is the ability to listen.”

  9. Hi Chris.

    In Steven Heller’s retrospective of Paul Rand, he dedicates two spreads to the NeXT logo, and most if it details this story of Rand’s initial presentation. What is interesting is that Rand produced a small book that detailed his development of the mark.

    To quote Heller: “At the beginning of this limited (fifty copies at the time, later reprinted in a much larger quantity at Jobs’ request) idealistic document, Rand announced his premise: “What should a logo for Next look like? he asked in text set in Caslon. This lead to a concise narrative that condensed decades of communications history into ten minutes of reading time.”

    Heller’s compendium has shots of the little book itself. It is worth seeing.

    S to follow up on your query about quality- versus quantity-based processes, Rand seems to cleverly do both. He presents the quantity in the form of a thoughtful narrative that “naturally” results in the quality of his final, singular, logo.

    As a designer, the lesson that I continue to take from this is how good Rand was at explaining his largely visual thinking. This act is something that most designers simply internalize and unfortunately do not always have the forethought (or time), to 1. go back and look at their own process and then 2. turn that thought-labor into something clients can understand and appreciate.

    (Also, it of course helps to have clients like Jobs.)

    ps Your post came back to me the other day after having watched Wall-E.

  10. @Hal Siegel: Wow, thanks so much for suggesting the Heller book. I’m going to try to get a copy for myself right away.

    The designer’s task of selling their design to their client is a skill that is undertaught and underdiscussed. I look forward to seeing Heller’s pics of Rand’s presentation.

    BTW, what in Wall-E reminded you of this post?

  11. There is one significant attribute of the design-BUSINESS link that has not been addressed here: MONEY. Jobs:Heller = gargantuan dollars, respectively.

    I think that a core to this conversation involves the traditional project management triangle: cost-speed-quality. The amount of iterations and variations applied has a lot to do with what the client is willing to spend against YOUR process as the designer. Mine is a simple point: don’t overlook the business logic that informs this equation — or — you’ll be out of business. Soon.

    These issues of depth and breadth need to be integrated into your respective budgets. And, as has been written by countless design journalists before, designers (AND DESIGN MANAGERS) need to do a better job of enlightening clients regarding the ultimate value of design (and the underlying design process).

  12. @Chris: Since you asked: I had gone to see Wall-E, and then happened across this other post. Note the off-handed remark about Jobs. This made me think “yeah, Jobs was a natural leader for Apple, but what equiped him for Pixar? Jobs wasn’t trained as a film-maker. (Was he?)” And that reminded me of your post…so there you go.

    ps Rand once spoke at Cooper Union, and my class was given the assignment of designing the invitation. The design he selected (not mine) was simply his signature blown up huge.

  13. @Hal Siegel, you made an interesting point about designers being mostly unwilling or unable to talk about their design process and to explain their visual thinking.

    I’ve noticed that, out of the many people who can design well, there are few who can talk about what they do well enough to have other people understand. This is the difference between “power-user” and “teacher”.

    It goes far beyond being able to simply sell your work. To be able to pass knowledge on to others you need this level of self-awareness to be able to help people identify the same internal elements in themselves as well.

    I would suppose normally this self-awareness grows organically as a designer works for a long period of time ina field, but I do wonder if you can teach people to describe their own processes the way art students are encouraged to “talk about their work”. Even more so, I wonder if this self-awareness can be fostered later on in an individual’s career.

    I’m currently in the process now of finding out whether you can actually teach a power-user to talk about their visual thinking and intuition well enough to have them become a teacher themselves.

  14. @Jack Meyer, I would argue that the self-awareness of which you speak does not just grow organically over time. Instead, like most other instances where there seems to be a sudden spark of “genius” or fame, that success can almost always be attributed to a lifetime of hard work and conscious effort and focus. Call it “The Tiger Woods Effect,” if you like.

    As a sort of counterpoint to the Jobs/Rand video, consider this video of Paula Scher from Hillman Curtis’s terrific series. About half-way through she talks about her design for the new Citi logo and as she says “It was done in a second and every experience and every movie and everything in my life that I had in my head.” Now this may be a bit of hyperbole, but part of what makes this impressive–at least in the video–is Scher’s ability to clearly explain this “aha!” moment in a way that foreground’s her experience and talent.

  15. I’ve recently discovered your blog and found it interesting.

    I’m not a designer, but I agree with what several others have mentioned, the projected admiration of Steve Jobs for Paul Rands’ “take it or leave it” attitude could simply be an indication for ready acceptance of the design process in the background. And the single product at the end will be the best any design group can come up with. The arrogance is in getting the job done perfectly. Jobs doesn’t need to check over his work because there is no mistakes, rather than the interpretation that alternate designs is unimportant.

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