It’s Easier to Revise than Create

How to hack starting from scratch to make something great.

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Around 2 minutes to read

I’m very fortunate to have had Jason Santa Maria as one of my first creative directors. There’s one thing in particular that Jason once said to me that I remember every single day in my work: it’s easier to revise than create.

When we worked together, Jason would always finish his work hours or even days before I finished mine. At first, I chalked it up mostly to the fact that he had more experience than I did. But once I actually watched his process, I realized he was doing something important that I wasn’t: he was finishing his work faster by worrying less about whether what he was doing was good. I would push elements in my designs around for hours; Jason would place an element and leave it there. He’d get everything on the screen, and that’d be the end of his first version, even if it looked horrible. That allowed him to finish that version in an hour or less. Then he’d start on the next wave of work: revising what he’d made. The creation part—that first pass of going from nothing to something—is one of the most difficult parts of making something. Many have labeled it the tyranny of a blank page, and one of the easiest ways to move past that stage is to fill it with something—anything—as quickly as possible. Jason is an expert at this.

The McDonald’s Theory

Designer Jon Bell puts this same concept to use when helping a group decide where to eat for lunch, a seemingly simple task that often escalates into long bouts of frustration for the hangry. He calls it The McDonald’s Theory. He says:

I use a trick with co-workers when we’re trying to decide where to eat for lunch and no one has any ideas. I recommend McDonald’s.

An interesting thing happens. Everyone unanimously agrees that we can’t possibly go to McDonald’s, and better lunch suggestions emerge.

Magic! It’s as if we’ve broken the ice with the worst possible idea, and now that the discussion has started, people suddenly get very creative. I call it the McDonald’s Theory: people are inspired to come up with good ideas to ward off bad ones.

This explains a lot! It’s why your co-workers have few suggestions when you ask them what to design, but everyone suddenly has a strong opinion when you ask them to critique something you’ve already made. It’s why starting a startup and getting to the first MVP of a product sometime takes months or years, but subsequent releases are much faster.

These things can be frustrating if don’t understand why they happen. But once you realize that it’s easier to revise than create, you can use it to your advantage. Free yourself from the pressure of making something good at the initial stage, quickly get to the part where you’re revising instead of creating, and watch how much more quickly you can build momentum.

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