In Praise of Half-Baked Ideas
I was recently going through my work and had a moment of realisation: I loved my incomplete projects more than my fully fleshed-out projects. There was something raw about them and the ideas they presented. The page didn’t have fully baked ideas.
The ideas on the page were still growing, developing and evolving.
They were still alive.
There is a richness in the world of incomplete projects. The ideas can almost talk to you and reach out to guide you on a journey. It’s a journey where neither you nor the design knows the outcome.
The Marriage of Minds
The design process becomes more magical when you consider it could be the result of 2 or more minds that have come together to create an idea. If done correctly, the outcome becomes more than the team behind it could have hoped to achieve. If done poorly, the design will display the team’s shortcomings for the world to see. More often than not, the design speaks of who created it and their level of harmony and synergy (or lackthereof).
Ideas have the power to set things in motion and inspire the world. I liken ideas to yeast and dough. Yeast (teams) can make the dough (ideas) rise when baking. When you finish baking bread, there’s very little you can change. You can always start over and build up from what you previously learnt, but the initial form of the idea will remain as-is.
It’s a balancing act:
- If you bake ideas too quickly, they might not reach their full potential.
- If you take your time, you might not realise you’re doing something wrong.
- If you don’t bake them, you can never know their potential.
Unfinished projects allow your imagination to run wild. You can quickly iterate and build on ideas. You can go down paths that you don’t typically try. You can then run back to safety if those paths take you to an area that is too wild.
There’s a child-like playfulness to working in a raw form: Your mind is untethered, and your thoughts or output are malleable.
I liken working on unfinished or unrefined projects to the difference between sculpting using wet and dry clay.
Focus on What Matters
Unbaked ideas protect you from being cornered by visual design decisions that aren’t the focus of the discussion you want to have.
How often have you wireframed something using existing components and spat together something ultra-realistic, only to find people fixated on the visual aspects but not the functionality or logic behind it?
If you bake an unfinished cake, people will want to eat it, and if the cake tastes bad, they’ll call you a terrible baker. If you wanted to ask how to roll the dough, having a baked idea will not allow you to frame your conversation that way because the process is no longer the focus.
I can’t count the number of times a client or team member fixated on the most mundane things because I used high-fidelity components that forced them to read the design as a finished product - And it was my fault.
Wireframes and process works are easy to present. They allow you to focus conversations on the conceptual flow rather than the visual appeal.
Think back to when you accidentally ask a user: “Do you like this UI?”.
Hint: You should never ask a user: “Do you like ‘This’?”.
If your work is too refined, your user might want to satisfise you with a “yes” so that you don’t feel bad that you’ve wasted your time on the design. When your user replies with an “Uhh.. yeah!”, the “Uh..” is probably the most honest part of that answer. If you present your user with a low-fidelity design, they’ll be more likely to engage and be honest with you.
Let People Bake Things For You
Unbaked ideas and designs will make your users less hesitant to pick up a pen and try to think alongside you. The best way to understand your user is to encourage them to understand themselves.
Quite a bit of this is me advocating for some good old pen and paperwork over the sterile digital environments.
Roll Your Dough Correctly
Unrefined ideas in sketch form have a unique property: It’s a sketch, you didn’t put time into building it up, and it won’t hurt if you throw it out because who cares? You can sketch it out again in 5 minutes.
Imagine spending months building the perfect UI only to find out you’ve been approaching it wrong. That’s a lot of time going down the drain. Sure some of the information or concepts can be salvaged and retained, but it’s a tough pill to swallow knowing that your last five months amounted to little more than a time sink.
Half-Baked Ideas and Bad Actors
Half-baked ideas can save you from bad actors.
Imagine: A prospective employer invites you to a job interview. The interview goes well. The only thing between you and the offer is a design exercise. This exercise seems innocent enough, but something feels off. The design test looks too much like a project the company is actively working on.
You’ve two courses of action:
- You decline the offer.
- You give it your best.
Sometimes, as my experience can attest, giving it your best means your work is now liable to be stolen. It was a slap in the face when I saw a company had outright stolen my designs and received widespread regional recognition for it. Instead of getting a job and recognition as a fresh graduate, I found that I devalued my time and skills.
What if you handed the company a half-baked idea?
In the beginning, presenting unpolished work frightened me, yet with experience, I learnt it was a tool that can filter out bad actors. I could work on the brief but choose not to polish it and keep it conceptual. I could align the work with my core principles and hand off a framework of how I would approach the project, but not hand off anything that anyone can steal as-is.
You can easily tear apart or deconstruct unfinished projects/ideas/thoughts. Think of it this way: You’re more likely to scribble over some stick figures that represent a person than to scribble over the Mona Lisa.
The ability to tear down and rebuild without having lost time or effort in the process is a liberating experience and allows you to take your design process and research to new bounds and places.
There is something about labelling a project as “complete” that stifles creativity and innovation. When we label something as “complete”, the product changes from a dynamic and responsive thing to something unchangeable and static. At the very least, “complete” projects become change-resistant and non-malleable. This resistance to change means your project will receive an inevitable expiration date.
I propose to avoid labelling projects as complete. When we keep our work in a constant state of incompleteness, our end product will always be open and responsive to changing factors. More importantly, If we always have access to the unrefined version of the end product, it will be much easier to tear it apart, explore, research, and iterate over it.
I am not advocating delivering unrefined work. You ought not to throw your craftsmanship outside the window, but it’s also critical to know when to pour all your blood, sweat, and tear into a product’s craft and when to adopt the saying: “Perfect is the enemy of good”.
I might have gone off the deep end here, but I believe in the ability of rough work to generate a diamond.
I love the idea of working on a project that will never see refinement past a medium-fidelity prototype. It allows you to tap into creative problem-solving and empowers you as a designer in your journey to develop and reach meaningful solutions.
Low-fidelity work lets you focus on what matters when working in an agile/lean environment. Instead of focusing on the visual appeal, you can focus your efforts on research and understanding your users. The visual refinement can come after you’ve keyed in on a solution that works. Lo-fi work can empower you to try less-travelled paths while providing you with a way back to safety.
As I like to say: If you’re digging for gold, you’re bound to find turd on the way. Before you begin polishing what you picked up, you need to examine what you have in hand. A turd is still a turd, even if you’ve polished it, so always make sure you’re polishing something worthwhile.
Stumph, D. (2019, January 21). Stop making things beautiful for the sake of beauty. UXDesign.cc. https://uxdesign.cc/stop-making-things-beautiful-18906d709c8a uxdesign.com, Gabriel-Petit, P., Hello_World, Gabriel-Petit, P., Agyei-Mantey, M. K.
Delgadinho, H., & Kleiber, J. (n.d.). Design Is a Process, Not a Methodology. UXmatters. Retrieved November 1, 2022, from https://www.uxmatters.com/mt/archives/2010/07/design-is-a-process-not-a-methodology.php