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Last week I sat down with
for an interview about what motivates and sustains creative side projects—part of a
The Designer Fund
program. Bridge pairs promising startups with astute designers, shares best practices, and offers remarkably candid insights from design and industry leaders. It’s a unique and powerful program—something any designer should consider (applications open on September 15th!)
We met at Mission Bowling Club , home of the durable and delicious Mission Burger (if you’re just here for the review, jump to it now). The conversation covered many things, including the importance of experimenting with both content and format. In that spirit, this entry takes the form of an interview. Republished with permission.
Mary’s questions are in bold ; my responses in roman.
How do you decide what to order?
Generally, I get whatever the house burger is, or whatever they’re known for. Often that’s a basic hamburger but it can also range to the more exotic. Yesterday, for example, I had a wild boar burger.
How did you come up with this idea? Were you always a burger guy?
I don't know if I am a “burger guy.” I started taking the office to lunch once a week. As designers, we tend to be critical of the world around us, even when we’re just at lunch. We ended up getting burgers a few times in a row; inevitably started to unofficially “judge” them. I’m always interested in the essence of things—about their true nature. If a burger is on an English muffin instead of a regular bun, is it still a burger? What if it’s pork belly instead of ground beef? The more I thought about it, the more I found parallels to design and creativity in general. I started writing these thoughts down, thinking I might organize them into an article. Then I thought about making a book. I committed to writing a little each week. That meant eating a burger a week. After two or three weeks it was clear that I was essentially writing a blog, I just wasn’t publishing it.
So I came into the office one morning and said I wanted to launch it as its own site. We named, designed and built it on Squarespace that day, and launched it the next.
It was dormant for a while. Why did you stop?
Why do you stop working out? Why do you stop reading? Or painting? Things that require time often require dedicated time. When you allow yourself to do something else instead it can be difficult to reestablish your routine. So you make these promises to yourself, “I missed a week of writing, but next week I’ll write twice as much.” Then the next week it’s twice as hard, and so it goes. Or...so it stops.
In my case I was fortunate that the project received a lot of positive attention early. The month it launched we had 30,000 unique visitors. The next month it was 40,000. But then you miss a week and you lose some of your audience. Then some more. Suddenly you’re squandering a good thing.
Is that why you picked it up again?
I picked it up again because I needed to. For me I mean. The whole point of doing a side project is because it fulfills something in you. If you’re doing it because it’s an assignment for school or you're trying to get attention, you’re being extrinsically motivated. As soon as that happens, it’s no longer your project. So, I’m really only writing it for me. Maybe a little bit for my mom. I know she reads them all, and she’s a writer. Even so, it can be challenging to sustain. I think that’s why you see a lot of 100-day projects; it’s a manageable timeframe that still sounds ambitious.
I know people who haven't finished their 100-day projects.
Of course. Its not that its too hard to do, it's that it is too easy to do something else. There’s always someone who calls and says, “Let’s go out.” There’s always a project that’s actually paying you that needs some attention, or a client you need to have lunch with...everyone has pressures and demands on their time.
What doubts do you have about The Message is Medium Rare?
I wonder if I can I really find fifty or a hundred different things to say about a hamburger! It’s actually getting hard. One way to address that is to experiment more with different forms of writing. I want to do a review that's just a poem. I want to do one that’s an interview with a chef. Who knows, maybe we could make this conversation part of it?
How does motivation differ from the client projects to side projects?
Risk. With clients, the creative risks you think you’re taking are actually their risks; it’s their money and their reputation you’re putting on the line. Perhaps it’s a shared risk, but there’s kind of a safety net—even if it’s as subtle as them giving you permission to try something, versus having to give yourself that permission. There’s a whole different dynamic there.
I appreciate the accessibility of the burger as a frame. In theory, a non-design person has access to the design insights, because the vehicle is a burger, America’s favorite food.We can assume that everybody has eaten a hamburger and the words to describe it arepart of everyone’s vocabulary. My initial intention was not accessibility, however, I chose burgers rather by chance.
So, may I ask you a question...what do you think of your burger?
I think it’s really good. I think the pickles are great. I wonder if they are homemade. The pickles, the sauce, and the salt are the three things that stand out to me.
Yeah. You notice the salt right away. The bun is great, too. A good bun is like good typography, it’s invisible. This one is from Acme. It does its job really effectively, holding the burger so it doesn’t slide out the back. It’s keeping all the juices in. It’s perfect. I like the onions, they’re caramelized which adds a subtle sweetness to each bite.
The Mission Burger is kind of famous in San Francisco. It was born as popup in Duc Loi Supermarket. Then it became the signature offering of Mission Street Food, which later became Mission Chinese Food. That place has a cult following. The chef, Anthony Myint, is also behind the upscale Commonwealth. It’s nothing like what you imagine when you think of eating a burger at a bowling alley—just like the bowling alley isn’t much like any other. The patty is combination of ground brisket, short rib and chuck. He sears it in beef fat so it’s rich and salty and juicy and really, really delicious. With the house-brined pickles, the aioli, the cheese...it’s a bit of a salt-extravaganza.
What do you see as the relationship between the burger initiative and your client work?
Very little. I don’t do it with the intent of it helping my work; side projects should be side projects. I know the answer people want to hear is something more like, “I gain all these insights and I get creatively stimulated or inspired by doing side projects, and here are the ways it influences my client work.” I think the truth is that the client work is much more influential. If we’re struggling on a project, inevitably I’ll find an analog to that struggle in the form of a hamburger. Sometimes that helps resolve the issue, but again, that’s not the goal. Occasionally there’s some passive-aggressive subtext to the insights. That’s me venting frustration.
What advice would you give someone about how to start a side project?
If you were to approach a side project like the Message is Medium Rare with the intention of it influencing your other work, would that make it less effective?
I suspect it might be less fun and it might suffer from the burden of expectations. For example, if I had to bring some sort of outcome from it into a meeting the next day. Once it starts being structured like client work, it may as well be.
What is the relationship between the stuff that we’re naturally interested in and being a designer?
Hopefully being a designer means being naturally interested in anything or everything in life. I’m always looking at a situation and asking, “What does this really mean? What’s really going on here? What is the metaphor here?” Design often speaks in metaphors—so the relationship is a natural one.
What have you found surprising about the project?
One thing I really like about the blog is that many readers don’t know immediately that it’s about design. I saw a Yelp review the other day, someone commented that they went to Shake Shack because they learned about it from the Message is Medium Rare! I guess there are people who read it for the burger reviews as well as those looking for some creative insight. That definitely surprised me.
Another somewhat surprising aspect of the project is how useful the construct has become. In some ways it’s completely arbitrary. In many ways it’s absurd. But forcing yourself to look at creativity through the lens of ground beef and buns presents an interesting constraint. I had a drawing instructor in college who asked us to bring an object that was meaningful to us to class and draw it. I brought in this silver duck piggy bank and drew it for an entire three hour session. Then he said, “You're going to draw this for the next three weeks.” It was devastating. I drew it from different angles, I drew it with different materials. At some point, I exhausted everything I knew. Of course, that was the point. He was trying to get us to flush out the familiar to make room for something new. So then I drew it with a six-foot willow branch. I drew it by erasing it. I stopped drawing what I saw and started drawing what I felt. I stopped drawing all together and wrote about it...and so on. Some of the traditional drawings were attractive looking, but all the interesting work came after my breaking point.
I think I’m nearing the point with the blog where I’m running out of familiar ways of writing and will have to start experimenting more. I’m looking forward to that.
Will you consider a project a success if you get to that point of exploring new territory?
I think so. Everyone defines success differently. It’s validating to see lots of likes and shares. I feel a vain rush of self importance when a restaurant or chef emails me asking if I’ll review their burger. When the blog was featured in a TV ad during the World Series it felt almost as good as seeing the Giants win. Squarespace and Creative Mornings and Media Temple and Roman Mars have cited it as a source of inspiration. I admire all of them and to be admired back means a lot. Cool Hunting said some really nice things. I was interviewed in New York Magazine which was really pretty cool. I’m honored to be talking with you. I’m not going to pretend that I don’t enjoy the attention. But those are all byproducts of success. It’s important to confuse extrinsic rewards with intrinsic ones. Side projects are labors of love. So loving it is the the only success metric that matters.
The Creative Lesson
The only rule is work. If you work it will lead to something. It’s the people who do all of the work all of the time who eventually catch on to things.