Think Like a Chef

Process Over Proprietary

One of the information flow diagrams from the development of the HCD Design Phase Operations Guide (link to beta) from the HCD Guide Series.

Designers, even at the leadership level, often act like technicians. And like many technicians, we often fall into the trap of black boxing our processes. Because we know how to push the buttons on creative programs or build the user flows or do whatever our specialty is, we try to protect that knowledge as a means of protecting our jobs. But when working in complex systems, that’s the exactly wrong way to do it. Instead, as the creative mentor Chris Do 1  puts it, designers need to think like chefs.

What does it mean to think like a chef? And why should designers do it? When I explain this concept in meetings, I usually pose this hypothetical:

“Jamie Oliver is a professional chef, and he knows how to cook Branzino. But beyond just knowing how to do it, he’ll also show you exactly how to do it at home, using things you have access to. He’ll show you all the ingredients and how to shop for them; he’ll show you the tools you need, the process of putting the whole thing together, and then the finished product. Does that mean that Jamie Oliver is afraid you’re going to take his job? No. You will probably never be as good at cooking as Jamie Oliver, and he knows that. Designers need to have that level of confidence in our craft, and we need to let people in.”

For Jamie, the Branzino is not just about Branzino: the Branzino is about cooking as a process. That’s what Jamie is selling, and that’s why he’s inviting you into his kitchen. He and other chefs realize that by raising the importance of cooking in the eyes of the public, they’re raising their own business potential. Opening their kitchens doesn’t threaten their businesses; it grows them. Designers need to learn by this.

Traditionally, designers hide our processes. In graphic design, copy would be sent to the art department, who would magically do all the design things and then a magazine or paper or poster or whatever would be produced. In digital design, business line owners tell the design department what they want, research is somehow done, and prototypes somehow happen. No one outside of the design department knows how they happen, and the designers don’t let them know. This is the entire business model of many agencies, 2  but it breaks down outside of the most simplistic, transactional relationship.

By letting people into our process, 3  we allow other business line owners understand how design works and how it can help them. By allowing people to see themselves in the design process, the design process shines as the true value, instead of the single output. Design leadership’s goal should be to redirect people’s focus from design as a single, end-product outcome to the process that is valuable and applicable every day.

As with jealously guarding at-home-chef level recipes, black boxing seems like a way for designers and other technicians to protect their jobs, but it’s really just a hangover from when design was a craft-based practice. As design takes a leading role in organizations, the black box needs to be unpacked, flattened, and recycled into something new.

  1. Find out more about Chris’ work via The Futur
  2. Comments below; analysis at On Designed Thinking
  3. Find examples in the CDC, PATS, and D_Coder projects.