Ballet dancers and shot putters

Why design isn’t always creative, and why that isn’t always a bad thing

November 06, 2022 · 6 min read

Starting a career in design is like crash-landing on Mars. You may have studied it through a telescope, but nothing can prepare you for actually being there.

One of the biggest surprises many new designers experience is that design isn’t always about coming up with the most creative solution. Sometimes, a well-worn pattern is the right tool for the job. For the new designers I’ve managed, the disappointment is often palpable: They wanted to think outside the box, but what we needed was in the box all along. Is this really what they signed up for?

Because this is such a common moment in any designer’s career, I’ve come up with an analogy to help make sense of the paradigm shift. If you’re new to design, I hope it helps you make sense of the work ahead of you. If you’re an old hand, I hope you can share it with others to clarify what exactly it is we designers do.

Professional ballet dancers and Olympic shot putters are both elite athletes.

As far as shot put goes, hopefully this isn’t news. Humans have been throwing big rocks around since we had arms. So imagine a shot putter: big, burly, muscular.

But ballet dancers? If you haven’t seen a professional ballet company, the amount of strength it takes will surprise you. Nevermind the core you need to balance on the tip of your toes, or the upper body it takes to lift a 100-pound ballerina over your head. To do all of that for anywhere from 10 minutes to many hours in a row, to the beat of an orchestra conductor’s baton, takes a lifetime of training and exercise.

But just as a surprising amount of strength is required for ballet, a lot of balance, coordination, and study is required of olympic shot putters. Check out this video with Olympic record-holder Ryan Crouser:

In 2021, Crouser set the world record with a throw of 22.82 meters (74 feet, 10 ½ inches). The world record for shot put has a rich history filled with drama and scandal, but at the end of the day, each competitor is measured on the same exact scale. Since the rules of the event are so straightforward, and the equipment so minimal, it’s one of the purest “sports” there is: how far can you throw a rock? There’s no special judge or umpire; if you can see the field, you know who wins and who loses.

Ballet does not have world records. If there were an Olympics of ballet, Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux would be the closest event to the shot put. The second half of the 12-minute ballet consists of a series of some of the most physically demanding solos in all of ballet: The dancers run, jump, and spin across the stage to a frenetic passage from Swan Lake. At the very end, the ballerina does a set of head-first dives, landing in their partner’s arms before hitting the ground.

But it’s hard to measure one dancer’s Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux against another. Dancing faster, jumping higher, or spinning further doesn’t always result in a better dance. A casual ballet goer might be stunned by the physicality of it all; New York Times’ ballet critic might lament a lack of finesse in a foetté. Every dance is different. Tiler Peck, one of today’s most accomplished ballerinas, said, “Every time I do it, I find out something different that I didn’t know about my dancing.”

And every dancer is their own worst critic. When the ballet ends, and the curtain drops, every person in the room has a slightly different perception of the dance.

Sometimes, design is like ballet. It requires a tremendous amount of creativity and skill, and it rewards exploring new and innovative interpretations of well-known problems. When designers start their career, most imagine they’ll be doing this kind of creativity-heavy design. And creativity is subjective. Some of the most iconic designs of all time were criticized harshly in their time. In 2007, Bloomberg’s Matthew Lynn said “The iPhone is nothing more than a luxury bauble that will appeal to a few gadget freaks. In terms of its impact on the industry, the iPhone is less relevant.”1 Frank Lloyd Wright’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York was unfavorably compared to “a giant corkscrew, a washing machine and a marshmallow.”2 But in both these cases (and many more), the critics were wrong.

Sometimes, design is like a shot put. It still requires skill and effort, but very little creativity. Take a login page, for example: a good login page is predictable, with clear inputs for your username or email and password, a way to get help with a forgotten password, social sign-ins, and a link to create an account. Under the hood, there’s a lot of details to get right: security concerns with leaking credentials, good accessibility affordances, fast validation and responsiveness to inputs. The best designers can get those details right while keeping the page simple and straightforward. But almost every app needs a login page, so those problems have been solved before.

It’s possible to know if you’ve designed a good login page. The user experience can be measured objectively: how many people successfully log in? Measuring means optimization and continuous improvement, down to the tenths of a percent on any given metric. How do you know if you’ve designed a good logo? A brand is in the eye of the beholder. You can measure sales, market share, consumer sentiment, but how much a logo actually impacts these numbers is hotly debated.

As a designer, there are times where it seems that you’re doing shot put after shot put. It may feel like this work is less fulfilling, because you’re not using the creativity you worked so hard to cultivate. But to your partners, the work will be no less valuable. And if you put all your training and effort into it, your work will be no less impressive to other designers, shot-putters and ballet dancers alike.

Footnotes & References
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  2. Genauer, Emily (October 21, 1959). “Frank Lloyd Wright’s Spiral Museum Opens: Guggenheim Museum Is Ready for Public Controversial 5th Ave. Structure Praised by Critics at Preview”. New York Herald Tribune. p. 1 ↩︎