19 January 2016
Design Practice

Design like a Michelin Star Chef

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.