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Decide What Quality Means

27 minutes, 37 links


Updated November 3, 2022

You’re reading an excerpt of Creative Doing, by Herbert Lui. 75 practical techniques to unlock creative potential in your work, hobby, or next career. Purchase now for instant, lifetime access to the book.

Ease isn’t the goal; excellence is.Ed Catmull

There’s a difference between what you think quality and progress mean and how other people receive your work. You have to define what quality means.

Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard, who writes in Let My People Go Surfing, “Striving to make the best quality product is the reason we got into business in the first place.” Patagonia’s definition of quality involves invention, global design, ease of care and cleaning, added value, authenticity, beauty, and the core customer’s needs.

Pixar’s former chief creative officer John Lasseter says, “Quality is the best business plan.” In his book Creativity Inc., Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull talks about the company’s definition of quality as one that highly values people—finding, developing, and supporting good people, who “in turn will find, develop, and own good ideas.”

In an ideal world, everybody wants to make something that other people admire and love. (And, hopefully, pay for.) For many of us, that’s inherent to the definition of quality. But as actor Ethan Hawke says, that definition of quality is actually the enemy: “Because it’s not up to us whether what we do is any good. And if history has taught us anything, the world is an extremely unreliable critic.”

This chapter sets out to support you to define quality beyond just something good and admirable to other people, and creating your own definition of it. “The definition of quality in the creator’s mind is the one that’s ever changing,” says Chris Kim. “Whatever quality means to you, that’s what ultimately defines who you are as a creative.”

Form an Opinion

In 2007, Ye (then known as Kanye West) founded and ran the blog called UniverseCity. The blog became well known as a source of inspiration, connecting the worlds of art and architecture with mainstream pop culture. The New York Times called it “a masterpiece blog.”

West ran UniverseCity with the help of a small team, including graphic designer Joe Perez. Perez was responsible for supplying and researching the content, making ideas available to West to curate, comment on, and approve. Even though Perez had formally studied at the Art Center College of Design, he has likened research for the blog to returning to art school—and studying every major simultaneously. “You can say you do research every day, but when something forces you to look at thousands of images on a daily basis, the best of the best, it starts to definitely have an impact on you on a really basic level,” he says. This exposure to a vast quantity of images seems to have remained with West, who would report looking at 800 images a day several years after the blog ended.

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Part of what Perez brought to the table was geographic; he had access to the Rhode Island School of Design library, where he discovered inspiration and references in books that weren’t as easily found on the internet. But looking at thousands of images wasn’t the only thing that refined Joe’s taste. There was also the thought process and dialogue that he and West developed to select and curate images for UniverseCity. Managing the blog required that both of them develop and refine opinions on the mountains of images that Perez selected.

Understand that while uninformed opinions are common, informed opinions are rare, interesting, and actually useful. Put in the work to develop and discover your opinions. Through rigorous and consistent studying, you’ll realize what your sensibilities and values are. Know the other possibilities, perhaps even better than the people who support them know it.

It’s these attempts and documentation that will serve you amidst difficult times. Understanding quality is not difficult; it starts as you immerse yourself in a lot of really good work and develop your own opinions on them. You won’t do good work until you define what good means to you.

Create a Quality Rubric

I’ve developed a definition of quality for all kinds of work I create. When assessing the quality of an article idea, for example, I look at timing, societal impact, counterintuition, action steps, and prior coverage. I discovered these attributes through noticing what ideas were accepted and rejected, through patterns I noticed in what I liked to read, and through papers I read. I refine the meaning of these words often, based on feedback from editors.

Criteria can be fluid; for me, they’re almost like rubrics, where I consider each of these factors, and I write down guiding questions to help me evaluate or test an idea. They also help me formulate the idea and position it.

For example, if I was looking at prior coverage, I would want to figure out how often this idea has been written about before, and in what ways. Do I have anything new to offer? Can I connect the big idea with a different small event, that’s more timely and relevant? Or is there an event that I can connect with a new idea?

I often write these questions down in second person, as if a writing coach were sending them to me. When I review each piece before I’ve decided that it’s done, I often also go through each of the criteria to make sure I can check it off.

As you develop your capabilities and perspective, you may find that list of questions getting longer. For example, in Let My People Go Surfing, Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard writes of his own list of criteria to evaluate potential product ideas: Is it functional? Multifunctional? Is it durable? Does it fit our customer? Will people be able to repair it? Is the product and line simple? Is it an innovation or invention? Is it a global design? Is it easy to care for and clean? Does it have any added value? Is it authentic? Is it beautiful? Are we just chasing fashion? Are we designing for our core customer?

As a starting point, choose a creator in your field that you admire. Learn more about their process, through their own memoirs and interviews, or through other people analyzing their work. Be mindful of the standards that start jumping out at you.

You might also see whether the creatives you admire have written about their own quality criteria, as many have: The 20th century poet W.H. Auden put out his criteria for major poets, Robert Caro shows some of his thought process in his book Working, and Mary Robinette provides feedback for editing articles. If you want to emulate author, programmer, and entrepreneur Derek Sivers, he shows you how. The same with Y Combinator founder Paul Graham. You could also study any other writing you like, and learn how you can improve.

Practically speaking, I’ve found that the best time to strictly apply these standards of quality is in the verification stage of the creative process. I’m interested in completing the idea and making sure it’s polished enough for me to be satisfied with. However, I deliberately do not apply these standards to my generative work, like writing in a journal or notebook, if I’m just taking a note, or writing a blog post for fun. At those stages, I’m still exploring and discovering what I have to say on a topic. The idea is too fragile to go through this process. It still needs to be nurtured and developed.

Define Acceptable

Once you’ve defined what quality means to you, you can also define what is acceptable: the minimum bar for quality, a passable mark. Not complete, certainly not perfect, but acceptable for you to declare that it’s done.

When you choose to make something acceptable, rather than perfect, you reduce the expectations and ensuing pressure that could block your creativity. You complete your work, stay motivated, knowing another opportunity is just around the corner, which provides another chance to make something interesting.

Knowing what acceptable means to you helps when you’re deciding whether or not a creative work—or a version of it—is actually done. You might double check to see if all the parts of your work pass your standard. In my line of work (writing) that means I’ll edit my draft three times before it’s done. I check it for grammar, voice, tone, and flow. Similar to a factory line, though, it’s best to also add in other stages to check the work’s quality, so there aren’t any unpleasant surprises at the end.

This can literally be a series of sentences that enable you to communicate when something is done. For example, the GitHub team published the philosophies that drove their decision making in a document known as The Zen of GitHub, which includes this quality check: “It’s not fully shipped until it’s fast.” If you want to declare something as fully complete at GitHub, you need to make it fast, probably meeting a maximum of some predefined set of milliseconds.

As I heard from recording artist and amateur bodybuilder Kim Jong-kook, the workout doesn’t end at the gym: “You’re only done after you eat.” He said, “Some people don’t eat after working out to lose weight. You have to eat to build muscle. If you don’t eat, it’s just labor.” In other words, if you want to declare your workout acceptable, you need to be as mindful of how you nourish your body—with the quantities and types of macronutrients you need—as you are of what exercises you do.

For me, I check if my idea is acceptable as a pitch, before I even write it up. Pitches for my articles are acceptable when I’ve explained to myself and the reader why the idea is well timed, what it means to society, what people may misunderstand about it, what people can take away from this story and apply to their lives, and how few people have covered it before. If the pitch fails in some way (for example, if a lot of people have covered it before), the pitch does not pass, and it is not acceptable. I’m happy, as I didn’t need to spend time writing the entire story out only to realize this—I didn’t try to make it perfect before I made it acceptable.

Visit the Greats

“If you have writer’s block, you’re not reading enough,” says poet Nikki Giovanni to author Mason Currey. In order to improve your output, you first need to improve your input. Experiencing other people’s work is the best first step to understanding what quality might even mean in your field. Everyone who is making something, right now, has been inspired by someone else.

I’m personally not a huge fan of lists. But, if you don’t have any references or places in mind, start with the greatest-of-all-time lists for your field. For example, if you’re making music, you could look at Mojo’s Top 100 albums of all time, or perhaps just of the last decade. If you have no idea where to start, look for your favorites in the list, or start at the top and work your way down.

Pay attention to what you notice. Dacoury Natche first notices the beat on a song, not the lyrics. Michael Saviello steps right up to the painting and starts looking at it. Don’t worry too much about what to do. Just try, and you’ll know.

Besides making time to experience art, look into the lives of artists. Dive into their creative processes and their perspectives on their craft. Read their biographies. Study their heroes, too. Know the bar that your heroes set for themselves, and set your own in that direction as well.

Eventually, it’s also important for you to experience work outside of your field. For example, a person who writes can find inspiration in a song, or a coder might be inspired by a design. But this prompt suggests first understanding what excellence means and feels like in your field.

Study the Craft

Select a piece of work you love or that is revered in your field. Study it. Answer this question: “What makes it great?”

Write down the first thing that stands out to you about the piece of work. Then, write down the second thing. And the third thing, and so on, until you don’t notice any more unique things. Then, read someone else’s commentary on the work—or if none exists, just call a friend and ask them what they notice about the piece. What do they experience that you didn’t? What interests them? What’s the difference between what you noticed and what they noticed?

For example, if you’re a writer studying an article you really like, write down the first 20 lines that interest you, and compare them with the first 20 lines of the piece. Or compare your 20 lines with 20 lines that another writer identifies, or perhaps 20 lines that an editor identifies.

In software, there’s a method of testing called rubber duck debugging. The method is simple—you explain to a rubber duck what your code is supposed to do and talk it out line by line. You can tell it what you plan on doing next as well. The rubber duck, in this case, doesn’t need to be for debugging; it can be the listener to your experience of a piece of art. If you’re shy and don’t want to explain yourself to a friend yet, try it with a rubber duck.

These are all actions you can take to pay attention. Focus on the work. Watch how you react to it. Don’t blind yourself with the craftsperson or artist’s reputation. Instead, use other people’s reactions or reviews of the work as windows into your own—not as your own talking points. Understand why other people consider the work great, and, most importantly, decide whether you agree, and why.

Copy a Classic

Michelangelo was a highly-skilled forger, and selling a counterfeit sculpture would actually impress the buyer and earn him his first patron. Vincent van Gogh copied Hiroshige, Paul Gauguin copied Édouard Manet, Paul Cézanne the Old Masters. Ye (the artist formerly known as Kanye West) re-created many hip-hop songs from the 90s to teach himself how to produce music.

Figure: “Flowering plum tree, after Hiroshige” by Vincent van Gogh, 1887. Credit: Niels, Wikimedia Commons.

Figure: Woodblock print of “Plum garden at Kameido” by Utagawa Hiroshige, 1857. Credit: Chester Beatty Library and Wikimedia Commons.

While most people might use the words imitating and copying interchangeably, there is a subtle and important difference. To imitate is to represent, reinterpret, or reproduce the style and vision of someone else’s work. To copy is to try to make an exact duplicate.

The goal of this prompt is to get you thinking about and feeling what it’s like to make something that you appreciate. Of course, this isn’t the final goal of your creative work; it’s an exercise to improve your skills. Hunter S. Thompson typed out The Great Gatsby just to get the feeling of what it was like to write that way. The idea of “copywork” has been applied to UI design and software development, too. If I’m typing the same words someone else wrote, I can’t claim originality over it, but it is a learning exercise.

You might find yourself facing gaps in your own skill and knowledge. It’s in copying that we experience a new dimension of the work—at the very least, a similar technical problem-solving that the original artist had experienced as well.

Imitate a Classic

To imitate is to represent, reinterpret, or reproduce the style and vision of someone else’s work. To copy is to try to make an exact duplicate. Imitation is not superior to copying—both have their place. You might need to imitate before you know how to copy exactly. For example, if you were to re-create a song you really liked, you might need to find the right instrument, drumkit, or sound file, and figure out what the layers sound like. But to imitate, you find your own way to recreate the original.

When I asked Dacoury Natche how he learned to make music, he spoke of imitating as a way to refine his own technique as he was first getting started. There will be things that you don’t know how to do yet, and that’s the point. When you don’t know something, do whatever you can to replicate it. As producer Chris Kim pointed out, the search for the answer and attempts to imitate or reproduce the original often provide more interesting results than recreating the original idea in the precise steps of the original creator.

Remix a Piece

When Dacoury Natche and I met, Kazakh music producer Imanbek’s remix of SAINt JHN’s “Roses” was at the top of our charts. I was on a road trip a few days prior and heard it at least twice an hour.

While the original artist SAINt JHN released “Roses” three years prior, it was the remix that was picked up on social media and broke through to mainstream radio stations, bringing the original with it. Essentially, the original served as a demo for a much more popular remix.

Remixing is at the heart of popular music. DJ Kool Herc sampled the best part of songs and hip-hop emerged as an art form. Hip-hop is one of the best examples of creativity involving mainly combining ideas. As Maria Popova writes in The Marginalian, “I frequently use LEGO as a metaphor for combinatorial creativity—if we only have bricks of one shape, size, and color, what we build with them remains limited; but if we build with pieces of various shapes, sizes, and colors, our creations will be infinitely more interesting.”

And before all of that, there was shanzhai (山寨). Before DJ Kool Herc, or combinatorial creativity emerged as a key component to creative work, there was shanzhai. While the term shanzhai is usually used today to describe counterfeit products (think of fake Nokia phones, the Motoloba, or Harry Potter and the Porcelain Doll), the word is built on a philosophy of creativity, “The Chinese idea of the original is determined not by a unique act of creation, but by unending process, not by definitive identity but by constant change.”

Byung-Chul Han writes that while a shanzhai product might be considered fake, that doesn’t mean they are inferior: “The ingenuity of shanzhai products is frequently superior to that of the original. For example, one shanzhai cell phone has the additional function of being able to identify counterfeit money. In this way it has established itself as an original. The new emerges from surprising variations and combinations.”*

In this prompt, you will be tapping into this idea of unending process by making a remix of your own work. Select one of the ideas you’ve completed. It could be your favorite idea or your least favorite idea. It could be the most popular one or the least popular one. You can ask your friend to choose from a bunch of options, or just randomly select one. Just pick one. After you’ve picked one, duplicate it (digitally or physically), and modify it by at least 3%, the percentage by which designer Virgil Abloh modified an original piece of work.

For a song, that might just mean tweaking a small portion of its running time, or supplementing it throughout with an infrequent chord or pattern. For a video, it might mean moving segments around or adding in a short new scene. For a painting, it might mean adding a new layer of paint somewhere—covering a figure, or creating a new one, or just adding to the background. Choose a part to change and a way to change it. (You can choose to modify by more than 3%, but give yourself some constraint.)

Similarly, you could choose to remix through reduction. Author and Princeton instructor John McPhee writes about a technique called “greening”—to “green” an opening paragraph by three means to cut three lines out of the paragraph as a way of forcing the editing process. He writes, “Green 4 does not mean lop off four lines at the bottom. … The idea is to remove words in such a manner that no one would notice that anything has been removed.”

Remixing may become part of your draft, demo, and sketch process. For example, for three months, seven days a week, 16 hours per day, graphic designer Joe Perez worked on Kanye West’s Cruel Summer album cover. In a video Perez uploaded on YouTube, there are 325 different variations of the album cover.

When you decide that your remix has become a draft of its own, save it as a new piece of work with a different title.

Obsess over Details

Obsession is one of the core aspects of craftsmanship. Detail, perfection, and progression are all fruits of obsession, an absolutist view on the correctness, integrity, or honesty of something. These traits often provide a breeding ground for great work.

“The details are not details—they make the product just like details make the architecture. The gauge of the wire, the selection of the wood, the finish of the castings—the connections, the connections, the connections,” writes designer and architect Charles Eames. You could also make the case that a creative work is nothing more than a sum of details.

Author Robert Caro writes of his obsession with research in Working: “Whatever it is that makes me do research the way I do, it’s not something I’m proud of, and it’s not something for which I can take the credit—or the blame. It just seems to be a part of me.”

We, too, must cultivate an obsession with our work. For me, in my writing, it’s about rigorous fact-checking and correctness. It’s about speaking in my voice, and doing the work it takes to figure out what that even means. Sometimes, it’s merely about a headline or, more likely, a lede—where I constantly tweak it to try to make it better. Other times, it’s about finding a fact or verifying an apocryphal tale to support a point.

To practice your detail-orientation, try choosing one thing to focus on for thirty minutes.

Zooming in on a small part of your work is a great interpretation of this prompt. You could focus your attention on one particular corner, or a 1-inch by 1-inch, area of your artwork. Or, if you’re making a song, focus on nailing the lyrics in the opening verse, or the harmonies on the bridge.

In music or computer hardware, you could also choose to focus on the time, pace, and tempo of your work. The thing you choose to obsess over might never be noticed outright by your viewers, readers, or audience—but you will know. For example, Apple made the blinking light sleep indicators on its laptops mimic the average number of breaths a person takes. You probably never knew that, but the creators knew it would make a difference in the quality of what they made.

Obsession can create the energy that takes your work to the next level.

Or flip this prompt: Stop Obsessing

Communicate Your Work16 minutes, 6 links

As long as you’re comfortable walking your truth, no one will ever beat you at being you, either.Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson

When you visit a museum or gallery, you’ll notice that each piece of art is usually accompanied by an artist statement. Each art show is accompanied by ephemera like brochures, as well as an audio guide. Curators know even the most accessible artwork can’t speak for itself to everyone; they need to provide context.

You may encounter a similar experience at a restaurant: a staff member presents the food, explaining the story behind a recipe, or where a key ingredient was sourced. The restaurant might even open up the kitchen, making every operation visible.

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