Frank Chimero Writing Archive
This an archive of old writing. Visit my main site for current work.

On Iteration

Two related quotes. First, Pixar president Ed Catmull on sharing work:

In the process of making the film, we reviewed the material every day. Now, this is counter-intuitive for a lot of people. […] Suppose you come in, and you’ve got to put together animation or drawings and show it to a famous, world-class animator. Well, you don’t want to show some thing which is weak or poor. So you want to hold off until you get it to be right. The trick is actually to stop that behavior. We show it every day—when it’s incomplete. If every body does it, every day, then you get over the embarrassment. And when you get over the embarrass­ment, you’re more creative. Show it in its incomplete form. There’s another advantage to that. When you’re done… you’re done.

And a second quote, from a blog post titled, Seven Brief Shining Moments, on the Differences between being a graduate student and a professor:

In the early years, critique is about identifying holes and mistakes that make ideas less plausible. In the later years, critique is about identifying the germs of ideas worth development despite the current holes and mistakes. Demonstrating that you have the skills and taste to make and support quality distinctions among ideas simply guarantees that you will read more and more stuff that is less and less well-developed.

The unsung hero of any process is the feedback loop. It’s the dialogue between the people working on something and the voice of that something communicating back to them what it requires and what can make it better. It’s also the communication of all of those people to one another their thoughts, concerns and schemes on how to get this widget to be something excellent.

One wants your feedback loop to be tight and open. Tight, meaning that it’s very easy for feedback to get to the people working on the project, whether it’s client concerns, needs of the audience, new ideas, or unforeseen limitations. Open, meaning that things can be pushed in any direction, so long as they have the potential to make the “something’ better. Iteration is the key characteristic of any workflow or process that has a tight and open feedback loop. Ideas are tried, experiences are gained, things are learned, refinements are implemented.

Iteration requires two distinct skills that work in collaboration with one another. First, the curating skill, which is able to realize and harness seeds of potential in ideas that are incomplete. This skill allows the feedback loop to push the work in completely new directions. The second is the proofing skill, which can earmark weak points that need improving. (Think red pens like heat-seeking missiles.) This is polish and refinement.

If you’re good at either one of these skills, you’re going to have people showing up at your door asking you to look at their work. Want to know which you’re good at? When do people show you what they’re working on? If it’s towards the beginning, you’re stronger at curation. If it’s towards the end of their process, you’re probably more of a proofer. But ideally, you should try to have both skills. There’s a lot of waste in gold mining. You want to have sharp eyes that can spot glimpses of gold, and then be able to polish them into something special.

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