Think about your favorite product, whether it’s a photo-editing app or a toaster, and ask yourself: how did it get to be so good?

With all the hype in the design world about creativity and brainstorming, it’s easy to imagine that great designs simply appear, out of the blue. Someone conjures up a new idea, and it just needs to be translated from sketch to product. Maybe many details need to be added, but the quality of the design was there at the start—like a tiny seed that grows spontaneously into a magnificent tree.

A much better model of design is described by George Saunders in his book A Swim in the Pond in the Rain. Saunders is talking about writing, but his ideas apply equally well to designing.

Saunders starts by writing down a bunch of sentences. Then he prints out the draft, and painstakingly marks it up, imagining, as he reads along, a meter stuck on his forehead with a needle that swings from N (negative) to P (positive) as he reacts to it intuitively. Then he fixes up the draft with his corrections, and starts the whole cycle over again.

In this way, the tone and quality of the writing—and the voice of the author—emerge gradually over time. By the end of the process, the writer has something in front of her that she could never have imagined at the start. Even the writer’s persona, as reflected in the piece, grows and adapts over time, until it reaches a state that may even be an improvement on the reality!

Most radically, this process makes the starting point less critical. As Saunders explains:

The beauty of this method is that it doesn’t really matter what you start with or how the initial idea gets generated. What makes you you, as a writer, is what you do to any old text, by way of this iterative method. This method overturn the tyranny of the first draft. Who cares if the first draft is good? It doesn’t need to be good, it just needs to be, so you can revise it. You don’t need an idea to start a story. You just need a sentence.

Applying this model to design has profound and encouraging implications:

  • When creativity happens. The creative work of design isn’t just at the start during some kind of “ideation” phase. On the contrary, most of it resides in the iterative adjustment of the design, in which the design is critiqued and adjusted in response to a stream of new ideas.
  • Where quality resides. What makes a design great is almost never a single novelty arising from a momentary insight, but rather an elegant alignment and uniformity that results from an accumulation of many small steps. Perhaps this is Christopher Alexander’s “quality without a name.”
  • The journey. You might worry that a process of design revision could leave you stuck in a local minimum in the design space, like someone digging a hole for treasure in a field who just digs deeper and deeper when they can’t find it. But if you take the revision process seriously, and view it as a creative journey, then every step offers an opportunity for a small change of direction, and you are likely to end up far from where you started.

What about the practical consequences?

  • Embrace iteration. If you want great design, you’ll need to embrace iteration. Sometimes this will mean postponing implementation as much as possible, so that you have the time to evolve your design before committing to code. Or if you must implement early, consider implementing a simpler design with known flaws rather than a complicated design whose features may turn out to be unnecessary in practice. You might even place a doorbell in the jungle.
  • Don’t obsess about ideation. Don’t invest too much in ideation activities. Save most of your effort (and your best designers) for revising your design. And don’t reject initial ideas because they’re not novel enough. On the contrary, it’s often best to start with a familiar concept that has been tried and tested, and whose limitations are well understood, and then morph it if it fails to solve the problem.
  • Be obsessive. Every small flaw you detect when reviewing a design, or that gets exposed from the experience of users, is not only an opportunity for a small improvement. If you think about it deeply, it can be a window into a new way of viewing your design, and a chance to take a step in a new direction.