"Beyond Craft and Tools: The Skills Design Students Must Master" on AIGA.org
The Gift of Attention

The Cult of Awesome

Some Awe

One morning, I had a dream that I was eating a red-hued apple. With each bite, the fruit would yield to my teeth with a pleasant snap—but over time, it began to dawn on me that I wasn't making any headway in consuming the entire flesh of the fruit. As I kept eating, the fruit seemed to grow larger and larger, and the task of consuming the entire fruit was impossible.

The dream seemed prophetic, as I'd been meditating on the notion of quality for a long time. Or, in particular, our desire to be part of the Cult of Awesome.

The idea behind this religion* is simple: Devote yourself to manifesting ideas that are awesome. There are plenty of other people trying to clarify what awesome means just in the context of life itself, but specifically I'm referring to Umair Haque describing the concept behind this belief system in 2009 on his Harvard Business Review blog:

"I'd like to advance a hypothesis: awesomeness is the new innovation… "Innovation" feels like a relic of the industrial era. And it just might be the case that instead of chasing innovation, we should be innovating innovation — that innovation needs innovation."

Umair goes on to describe the four attributes of awesomeness (with regard to one-upping innovation) as:

  1. Ethical production
  2. Insanely great stuff
  3. Love
  4. Thick value (i.e. sustainable value over time)

When his post came out in September 2009, thousands of people online started to buzz about what it would take to get from great to awesome. Umair is working to create a larger, more powerful description of what makes the pursuit of awesome, well, awesome.

Umair's punchlist seems handy when talking with CEOs about how to foster sustainability practices and calibrate their engines to churn out awesome products, services, and so forth. What his list doesn't provide is exactly how the people that give ideas their form can aim for manifesting ideas that are awesome. He's aiming at influencing the top 5% of the executive pyramid, whose newfound and fervent beliefs in awesome will then trickle down to the other 95%: those who are busy churning out what will quickly be categorized as "not insanely great stuff."

I'm being a little flip here because this is nice for CEOs to digest while on their next transatlantic flight, but what does it mean for designers? Is it really so easy to say to design teams, “Go make insanely great stuff?"

I feel like there's a huge missing piece in his pursuit of awesome: the methods and efforts that everyday makers put into manifesting awesomeness while keeping your sanity intact. I'm confident there is no one true path to awesome, but perhaps there is a mind set or tools we can use when straining against the gravity of mediocrity. This is more than just a baseline design process. It's what we learn from the School of Shipping Awesome.

Which leads me to ask this not-so-simple question: How do we make things that we create awesome?** What principles define the process of making things awesome, for teams that include designers, on a practical day-to-day basis?

I sent the above text around, in an earlier draft, to people that I respected in the design community.*** I also had a ton of conversations with designers about this subject. The responses clumped into three areas of insight:

1. There are working processes that teams use, aligned around: craft, persistent effort, multidisciplinary teams, and regular gut checks with market fit and user need. To paraphrase their points:

  • Awesome products and services are intensely crafted.
  • Awesome design requires persistent effort over time for a team to realize. It doesn't emerge automatically from a great idea. It's the push towards realization that can define the idea's merit. (This is covered pretty well in Scott Belsky's Making Ideas Happen.)
  • Reaching awesome requires continuing to check your perspective, from overall business strategy to the production details, multiple times over the life of a project. Throughout each perspective check, you shouldn't be afraid to walk a dozen steps backward to make a singular gain. Most organizations don't have the stomach to throw everything away, declare failure, and start anew with a clearer point of view.
  • Awesome products and services comes from a fusion of multiple disciplines in how the thing is realized, all of those POVs informing each other. Ownership from everyone that's involved in that process is critical.

2. Creating awesomeness isn't something that can be systematically analyzed and realized. Or, in plain English: people called bullshit on the idea of an Awesomeness process. To paraphrase those conversations:

  • There is no silver bullet, process-wise, for creating awesome stuff. You should resist the notion of choosing some off-the-shelf process, which can then be plunked into your workflow and utilized with little to no extra effort.
  • You need to design each project around what it will take to achieve awesomeness.
  • If there was a consistent method of creating awesome products and services, we'd all be doing it.
  • You just have to try and keep trying. (Though one interesting follow-on observation was that awesome design can comes from having previously produced awesome design. Repetition and persistence through failure increases the likelihood of the best outcomes.)
  • Awesome products and services often comes from (initially) ignoring working process and speculating a solution—a "hail mary pass." This doesn't happen by following a checklist.

3. Awesome only becomes a factor once you see how your product or service is performing in people's hands. Until then, you can only aspire towards creating something great. Some interesting points:

  • Awesome design is a factor of constant iteration, both in the mind of the designer and the hands of the customer. There's a dialogue between the two.
  • You know when thing is awesome within 2 milliseconds of starting to use it. (This is the first litmus test of critique.) It continues to be awesome when it works like it should. In the past, it may not have ever met a person's expectations.
  • These awesome products and services then tell their own story over time, which people echo and expand upon. It rarely requires an external marketing story, which is redundant.
  • Awesome products and services force people designing the products and using the products to acknowledge their shared dislikes.
  • Awesome products and services manifest themselves via a feeling of intimacy (which leads to love). Without this, why would you be emotionally invested in them as part of your life?


After gathering the above responses over two years ago, and feeling a bit disheartened by the divergence of perspectives on the subject, I put the results of those conversations in a drawer (digitally) and just tried to focus on creating great work, hoping that I'd have greater clarity on which of the above perspectives held water after giving some of these perspectives a whirl.

After pulling this material back out of the drawer and looking at it again, I'm of the feeling that everything above has some merit.

There are working processes that teams use to try to create awesome products. Sometimes those processes get in the way of making great stuff, which requires teams to lean more heavily on their intuition to speculate about things that haven't been used (yet). And you don't know it's awesome until people let you know it's awesome, which is the most important feedback loop you can build into how the product or service operates.

That said, do you have your own POV that helps you aim for awesomeness? Is there a middle path that designers can follow in how they work with teams to let them balance the demands of shipping stuff with the ideals of making it insanely great? Or is aspiring towards awesomeness a ruse, a Sisyphean task?

If you have thoughts on this, feel free to voice them in the comments below.

That would be awesome.



* I'm calling this "Cult of Awesome" a religion because subscribing to any ideal like the above can tend towards dogma. Might as well give it a name that makes the risk clear.

** I'm sidestepping the word "design" (for now) and using the word "making," because I think that the role of design is an implicit factor in the creation of awesome products and services, whether we're talking about design, engineering, manufacturing, et cetera. While the businessmen at the top are busy trying to wrap their brains around what awesomeness means for their business, I think there's much greater value in empowering everyday workers—and designers are first and foremost among them, oft transmitting their skills to their teammates—in translating the desire for awesomeness (the shared vision) into tangible, real results.

*** Thanks to Jon Bell, Hans Gerwitz, Justin Maguire, and Raj Thiagaraian for sharing their perspectives on this subject with me, among dozens of others in casual conversation who have enriched this piece over the past two years. But those four people were most awesome in grappling with the subject at the inception of this blog post.


Jon Bell

Nice write-up. I agree with all of your insights (#1, #2, and #3). But I'd take it a step further. Not only is an "awesomeness" process bullshit, I think it's harmful and distracting.

There are people who create high quality things through dedication to their craft, and just takes a lot of hard work ... and then there are people who are merely chasing cool. Sports metaphor: everyone wants to dunk, no one wants to work on the fundamentals. Cooking metaphor: great chefs don't need to rely on culinary fashion to wow - they just prepare a handful of ingredients very well. Dating metaphor: some people are naturally charismatic and "awesome", others read "500 Ways To Trick Women to Jump In Your Bed".

High quality isn't complicated, it's just incredibly hard. Each new buzzword promises and fails to find a shortcut to all the hard work.


These 3 areas of insight look like part of a taxonomy of approaches toward the same goal. Any of them could create awful or awesome results, with varying degrees of time, individual engagement, or - god forbid - innovation.

They may also all tend towards different kinds of results. Awesome things are often awesome in ways that aren't shared with each other. Categorizing and analyzing all awesome results together is as impractical as creating a music genre called "good music."

I guess I have taxonomies on the brain today. At the implementation level, we use the word "awesome," for the connotation and sustainment of enthusiasm, which is important to our success. I am now alerted to its use as a buzzword, thanks to you.


Regarding you'll-know-it-when-you-have-it and keep-iterating: I recommend reading this passage in the most recent HBJ bit about St SJ:

“I didn’t sleep last night,” he said, “because I realized that I just don’t love it.”


The comments to this entry are closed.