“Make it work” Matt 27 Sep 2006

22 comments Latest by Nick Dynice

Marcel
speaking of tv shows…at the risk of sounding (something), Project Runway is actually a good example of embracing constraints
Jason
I enjoy project runway
Marcel
for each episode they get a design assignment, then barely any money or time to complete an entire piece of clothing
Marcel
like between 50 and 150 bucks, then like 30 minutes to shop, then 1 day to come up with concept and final product
Matt
the secret is out: 37s loves project runway! seriously, one of the few reality shows i can think of where genuine talent is actually rewarded.
Matt
and that guy’s MAKE IT WORK is very 37s too
Jason
MAKE IT WORK — love that guy
Jason
and I love that line

There, we did it. We’re out of the closet as Project Runway fans. Not only is the show well done, it offers a bit of Getting Real flavor to boot.

According to Forbes.com, PR “portrays fundamental truths about creative work.”

Designers work with limited time, on limited budgets. As in every business, they face unexpected problems — broken sewing machines, models who don’t show up, fabrics in the wrong colors.

“Make it work” is not just coach-mentor Tim Gunn’s catchphrase. It’s the show’s overarching philosophy: Strive for perfection and brilliance, but first and foremost, get the job done.

Compare that philosophy to, say, this agile advice from The Art of Unix Programming:

Prototype, then polish. Get it working before you optimize it. Or: Make it work first, then make it work fast. ‘Extreme programming’ guru Kent Beck, operating in a different culture, has usefully amplified this to: “Make it run, then make it right, then make it fast”.

tim gunnAnd Tim Gunn, the “make it work” guy, really does rule. Plenty of workplace managers could learn from his tone and demeanor (i.e. straightforward, honest, and empathetic). He rips designers to shreds yet manages to do it in a “I’m doing you a favor” way. He credits this ability to offer direct criticism to his years of teaching:

I found quickly in my teaching career, if you approach a student about something that’s not going well…If you approach them with sincere concern and say, “I need to tell you how I really feel about this, because I feel a responsibility to you and I want you to succeed,” that usually works best.

And his story of how he originally got the gig includes a great “embracing constraints” anecdote (emphasis mine):

The producers asked me how I would respond when told a wedding dress had to be designed in two days. I was nonplussed and said, “Well, if a wedding dress needs to be designed in two days, it will be designed in two days.” The ‘make it work’ phrase I’ve been using at Parsons for years — they have to make it work. The producers said, “Everyone else told us you need at least two weeks to do a wedding dress.” I said, “Well, for a certain kind of wedding dress. The Project Runway dress isn’t going to have arms, it isn’t going to have a train, it isn’t going to have a lot of things, but it will still be a wedding dress.” I guess that resonated with them because they called back a couple days later and said, “We want it to be you!”

Forget the arms and the train and just build the damn thing. Good stuff. Ok, carry on.

22 comments so far (Jump to latest)

Chris Carter 27 Sep 06

I think you guy make many good points here (constraints, criticism), and Project Runway certainly speaks to your philosophy. Tim Gunn is awesome.

However, I do have to say (being another one of those “fans” by way of my girlfriend) - a lot of the work that’s put out is crap, precisely because of the constraints, so it can also be explored from that angle: no initial planning and tight time constraints cause the non-rockstars to melt down, attack each other, and produce something that looks like a third grader only got 1 gold start instead of 3.

--Josh 27 Sep 06

I agree, Project Runway is great in that they let the natural drama of the creation and talent shine through. And there’s no denying that Tim Gunn is great. If you guys haven’t run across it yet, he has a weekly podcast where he discusses what happened in that week’s challenge. It’s available through iTunes.

Bravo’s other similar show, Top Chef, was also quite interesting in that they focused on the craft. They didn’t have the same level of hosts, but apparently they’re reshuffling to remedy that for next season.

Daniel 27 Sep 06

I don’t feel so much that I have to call this show my “guilty pleasure” anymore :-)

I watch it with my wife all the time.

I’ve always admired it because it’s such a different show compared to other “reality” shows - and while the producers have input on who wins and loses, you generally see real skill bringing in the wins. It’s one of the only competition-based reality shows out there where I feel the winner (and some of the excellent runners-up) is actually capable of the desired end-result - being a fashion designer in this case.

I have to add, in response to Chris Carter above, that Project Runway doesn’t include the revise/improve stage mentioned in the post, so it may be difficult to accurately study the show as an example of “rushed” design and build. While it certainly does show how certain people work under pressure, even real world firms that estimate well can afford the time to revise after the initial deliverable.

Jack Straw 27 Sep 06

Proj. Runway is great. Just finished season 2 on dvd. Santino is the DHH of the fashion world. Seriously. But he exudes confidence and consitantly delivers something opinionated and awesome.

Dave Rau 27 Sep 06

Yes, I too love the show (since the start of season 2) and I find the best designers are the ones who have strong opinions and a point of view to show; also a very 37 attribute.

Andre! What happened to Andre?

Michael Hessling 27 Sep 06

One of the things I love about PR is the inherent tension between developing and maintaining your own point of view (a 37Signals attribute, as Dave mentioned), while still catering to the client. The best designers, of course, do so effortlessly: they convince the client that this way is best. The worst designers clash with their clients and end up producing some hybrid that makes no one happy.

SH 27 Sep 06

“However, I do have to say - a lot of the work that’s put out is crap, precisely because of the constraints”

This is quite correct. Many of the designers will even admit that “underneath” their clothes, the designs are falling apart, seams are glued together, dresses stapled to fit a model, all in the panic of “making it work.”

As much as I adore the show, I don’t think the process of embracing constraints in that way is the best metaphor for 37s work. Just because something looks nice for 15 minutes on the runway, doesn’t mean it’s not going to fall apart the minute it’s on the street. Sometimes people focus a bit too much on making an aesthetic work while not considering what’s “underneath” it all.

Or perhaps that was the point of the argument?

Mike Gowen 27 Sep 06

Funny this should come up. I’ve been watching PR a lot lately as well. I was hooked after the episode where they were required to use a certain amount of fabric…no more, no less. One of my personal philisophies has been that “creative freedom” is an oxymoran. Take away the freedom and thats where true creativity is born. In fact, sometimes I take the whole “embracing contraints” thing a step further and CREATE constraints, just to force myself out of my comfort zone and come up with something original.

Mike

ML 27 Sep 06

Just because something looks nice for 15 minutes on the runway, doesn’t mean it’s not going to fall apart the minute it’s on the street.

Well, they do get something up and showable quickly which is a key aspect of Getting Real. But they don’t get to iterate so there is def a gap in “underneath” quality. It’s not a perfect analogy, but I decided to make it work. ; )

Jen 27 Sep 06

This essay uses Project Runway to talk about writing for the web. It shows that there is indeed a revision stage, albeit a subtle one:

http://www.redinked.com/2006/09/08/project-runway-make-it-work/

Sh 27 Sep 06

Touche, Mr. Linderman, Touche! Perhaps you’re in need of one of these?

guy 27 Sep 06

Don’t get me wrong, I love the 37signals philosophy. But don’t you guys ever get tired of these “Look! Someone else who agrees with us!” blog posts.

Ok, we get it that many popular people and products parallel (excuse the alliteration) your ideas. Enough already.

These sort of posts are tedious to read, and it seems like they’d be tedious to write.

ML 27 Sep 06

Guy: Less, Getting Real, simplicity, etc. are some of the major themes at this blog so we return to them often (the same way Seth Godin talks about Purple Cows and Mark Hurst talks about good customer experiences).

Geoff 27 Sep 06

Thanks for the Mark Hurst introduction. I’d like to know what else you guys are reading.

Geoff B 27 Sep 06

—-Well, they do get something up and showable quickly which is a key aspect of Getting Real. But they don’t get to iterate so there is def a gap in “underneath” quality. It’s not a perfect analogy, but I decided to make it work. ; )

There’s a lot to be said for this in the software world. PR contestants are judged on a working prototype rather than a release-quality product. The judges would give the boot to a designer who thought hand-waiving and prattling on about fashion concepts would save an incomplete piece. Concepts are great, but they must be embodied in a working design. At the same time, the judges aren’t going to start inspecting seams, complaining about glue, or getting too detailed, because it’s still about creativity and design at this point in the process.

althouse 27 Sep 06

A nice piece on project runway (and about how tim gunn got the gig) from a software developer’s pov - good work is about embracing constraints.

Thought you might enjoy it.

Brandon 27 Sep 06

Great post, but I think there needs to be something more added to it. However, maybe it’s just me. In addition to working with constraints, what about the distractions that those designers deal with? I mean, have you seen Heidi Klum recently?

But in all honesty, I think it’s amazing that they can handle distractions while still managing to embrace those constraints. They live in a house with each other and have conflicts that then carry over to the studio. The models are brought in and often voice their opinion/suggestions about the clothing, regardless of how constructive they might be (sound familiar, anyone?). They then have to put aside the clothes and turn their attention to the make-up. The way the designers handle it all never ceases to amaze me.

While I realize the post was about working within constraints, why not tie in the “noise” aspect of Project Runway as well? After all, as every web designer or developer knows, distractions are something we deal with every day.

stefan klocek 27 Sep 06

//“However, I do have to say - a lot of the work that’s put out //is crap, precisely because of the constraints”

//This is quite correct. Many of the designers will even admit //that “underneath” their clothes, the designs are falling apart, //seams are glued together, dresses stapled to fit a model, all //in the panic of “making it work.”

“Making it work” for a piece of runway clothing, simply means getting it to work on the runway. If this were a software application on the web, then “making it work” would mean it would have to function on the web. It might not be pretty, or fast, but the application, the core idea has to be well executed enough to work. If it’s fashion than maybe the “code” underneath (sewing, glue, staples) is sloppy, but if it looks good, and holds up long enough to make a walk on the runway, then it’s ok — because making it work was an aesthetic goal.

stefan klocek 27 Sep 06

//“However, I do have to say - a lot of the work that’s put out //is crap, precisely because of the constraints”

//This is quite correct. Many of the designers will even admit //that “underneath” their clothes, the designs are falling apart, //seams are glued together, dresses stapled to fit a model, all //in the panic of “making it work.”

“Making it work” for a piece of runway clothing, simply means getting it to work on the runway. If this were a software application on the web, then “making it work” would mean it would have to function on the web. It might not be pretty, or fast, but the application, the core idea has to be well executed enough to work. If it’s fashion than maybe the “code” underneath (sewing, glue, staples) is sloppy, but if it looks good, and holds up long enough to make a walk on the runway, then it’s ok — because making it work was an aesthetic goal.

Rich Curtis 27 Sep 06

Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares is another good TV example of Getting Real. He moves into a kitchen, and does a turnaround on a struggleing restaurant, forcing them to confront realities and *make do with what they have*.

Simple, fresh ingredients, attention to craft, and passion all come through as essential elements for success. Complex, showy food is viewed as failure. Let the work speak for you, rather than showing off.

Very interesting methodology. I wonder if Simplicity is becomming the new black.

: )

Chris Carter 27 Sep 06

I’m not talking about the clothing holding together, I’m talking about how it looks and functions. Not everything those guys make looks like the next Ralph Lauren - in fact (from my perspective, fashion is fairly subjective) I’d say that at least 50% of the designs on each show look like crap.

My point is that “embracing constraints” is a fairly broad statement, and some constraints (like time and materials) will result in poor work if used improperly or the person doing the work is not a rockstar.

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