Design like a Michelin Star Chef | January 19, 2016

The England of my youth was a desert for good food. The difference between a “good” restaurant and an average one lay mostly in the surroundings; that and the use of slightly more expensive ingredients. But white cotton table cloths and snooty service weren’t enough to hide the mediocre food that lay therein. That’s why I used to relish my regular trips overseas, to eat at restaurants where the owners actually cared about what they were producing.

Jump forward 20 years and the landscape has changed dramatically. England is awash with top-end restaurants and Michelin Stars abound. Quality cooking now permeates popular culture, thanks to shows like Master Chef. This attitudes has trickled down to neighbourhood bistros, mixing locally-sourced produce with the skill of the chef. As a result we’ve developed the vernacular and know when something doesn’t make the grade; we’ve basically become a nation of food critics.

We still have average restaurants, but they are few and far between. Instead, a rising tide has raised all boats. Even pubs, and more recently the humble pizza restaurant and burger joint, have gone gastro. The UK really is in the midst of a food revolution. So much so that I now look forward to returning from overseas trips, because of the food.

In this environment, it’s no wonder that a recent show on Netflix charting some of the best restaurants in the world was an immediate hit amongst my colleagues. The level of passion and craftsmanship the chefs demonstrated was amazing. These chefs sweated over every detail, from the provenance of the produce, to the service experience. Experimentation was key, and you could tell that every dish they produced looked and tasted fantastic, elevating cooking to an art form.

This focus on quality struck a chord with me as a designer. It’s an attitude that’s been baked into Clearleft from the outset, hiring people who really care about the details and want to go the extra mile, not just for our clients or their users, but for the field itself. Like great chefs, designers find it difficult to explain the extra effort that goes into an amazing composition. It’s actually fairly easy to knock up something palatable if you have the tools to hand. However it takes a huge amount of effort to craft something noteworthy.

Where quality is concerned, whether it’s with food or design, it usually takes 20% of the effort to deliver 80% of the quality, and a further 80% of effort to deliver the last 20% of quality. I call that the effort to quality curve, and most people stop where the differential is highest. But it’s the last 20% that elevate a dish from average to amazing.

Sadly the current design climate reminds me of 90s cooking. The big studios, like the big chain restaurants, are more interested in delivering a consistent experience rather than a quality one. So they put processes in place that ensure minimum quality, but do nothing to foster true creativity. Many agencies and individuals come off looking like fast food joints, using frameworks and templates to speed production and deliver a slew of me-too products lacking in love or a sense of craft.

By comparison, when I look around our studio—and others like ours—I see the similarities between a kitchen full of expert chefs. Each one with their own areas of expertise, but brought together through a passion for good design and quality code.

However in a world dominated by fast food and even faster design, it’s often difficult to explain the difference to customers—why a meal by a Michelin Star chef is worth more than a chain restaurant. It’s difficult because, unlike the restaurant world, most customers haven’t seen the effort required to deliver quality; haven’t sampled enough dishes to tell bad from good.

The only way to combat this is for designers to make their effort visible as well as their output; to educate customers on the importance of ingredients and technique; and to design like a Michelin Chef.

Posted at January 19, 2016 2:22 PM


Jan Zheng said on January 19, 2016 4:35 PM

This is a good post! But don’t forget that if we ate Michelin star food every day, it would be heavy in our bellies and heavy on our stomachs. If every site was a black truffle or some kind of mousse, I think we’d yearn for the days when they were simpler yet effective

Danny Hope said on January 19, 2016 5:24 PM

Did you happen to catch Heston Blumenthal: In Search of Perfection a few years back? He personifies UX design, going so far as to remotely monitor diners while they eat – an obvious analog to user testing.

angel said on January 20, 2016 10:27 AM

Nice post and it is impossible to replicate like a michelin star chef and thanks for sharing the post.

Mark O'Neill said on January 20, 2016 2:18 PM

This is an excellent post - a perfect metaphor. Thanks!

Cennydd said on January 21, 2016 1:43 PM

I think the veneration of artisanal craft in our discipline (and indeed our wider culture) has gone a touch far. If we’re not careful, it makes us elitists, unwilling to accept the pragmatic reality of business, design, life. Designers need balance if they’re to have the impact they should – Craft and mass-market production (Michelin & Iceland alike) both have a place.

Alistair said on January 21, 2016 10:06 PM

Building on Cenydd’s comment, the adoration of craft is reminiscent of the ‘Arts and craft’ movement with William Morris etc, the theory was that it was for the benefit of all, but it ended up being great for the wealthy who could afford to buy into it.

When you’re talking about digital and services it’s possibly different, but the idea that it’s hard to explain to clients where the added value is struck me. The ability to articulate and demonstrate the value of our work is potentially what we lose when we focus on craft, is it the clients responsibility to have a taste for haute cuisine or is it ours to provide the best quality possible at their budget? I don’t know if either is the answer, all of this is up for discussion.

I certainly don’t condone ‘minimum quality processes’ for a conveyer belt of customers, just wonder if the comparisons with craft and ideas of educating clients leads to a more inward looking, self congratulary design industry at the cost of potential external impact. Thanks for the post, good food for thought.

Francis Kim said on January 24, 2016 1:08 PM

Great metaphor - something I can apply to development too.