They say you never forget your first…..…Marathon, that is. I ran my first Marathon in 2015.
This October, I’ll be running my 12th Marathon - 26.2mi/42.2km along with 30,000 other runners (all wearing the race shirt I designed, BTW).
While I’ve only been a Marathoner for 3 years, and I’ve been a professional designer for almost 20, I can confidently say that I’ve become a better designer as I’ve become a better runner. And perhaps, a better runner for being a designer. Design and Marathon running are similar, so it would seem.
“______ is a Marathon, not a sprint”. I’ve heard everything from life, marriage, to eating pizza described like this, but as any runner knows there is wisdom behind the idiom. Go out too fast in a marathon, and you’ll pay for it later. Racing is all about pacing and design is no different. Like any good runner, a designer needs to have a plan in place and work with, not against the time to be efficient and effective. This may mean working slower in the start of the project to do due diligence and research before picking up the pace later for concept design or prototyping.
Laying the proper foundation for a creative project is in effect no different than training for a marathon. A training block for a serious runner can be anywhere from 12-18 weeks and include up to 75mi/120km per week of running (I’m currently at about 65mi/100km per week) not to mention all the time getting ready to run, stretching, cross training, eating, etc. Ask any runner and they will tell you it’s like having a part time job! Proper training and the build to race day is key however to run a good marathon. Each week in a training block builds on the previous week in distance, and intensity.
A design project likewise requires proper build and foundation. In my own Design Management working process, I lean heavily on both visual and written documentation to lay down position, strategy and specifications for future creative work. Design briefs are a lot like a Training Plan. They lay out the goals and describe the process you’ll take to get from mile 1 to mile 26.2 or from concept to production.
If there’s one thing that running 26.2 Miles/42.2 Kilometers gives you, it is time to think. In a race, this can be both good and bad. The first half of the marathon distance, thinking is good. No better way to kill some time and stay on pace than thinking about all the food you are going to eat after the race, or how you will have completed a marathon before most of your friends wake up for brunch….. By around 19mi/30km though the race changes. As your lactate threshold is hit and your body is literally telling you to stop and not die, it’s easy to get in your own head. “Hitting the wall” is what runners call it and at this point your brain can be shouting “STOP!!!” far louder than your legs can be saying “It’s OK, we trained for this!”. In almost all 11 marathons I’ve run, this overthinking has cost me time and almost ruined perfectly good races.
Design projects can also get to this point. Maybe it’s deep in the development process, after molds are open and production samples are approved. “A wall” is hit. Maybe a technical issue that somehow didn’t come up in weartest samples. Maybe a money issue. Maybe the factory is pushing back on schedule. It’s easy at this time to overthink things and slam on the brakes. But if you keep your goals in mind and “trust your training” it can be possible to solve the problem, push through the wall, and see the project to the finish- even if the goal needs to be adjusted you can live to race/design another day.
At the end of the day, brining a design project to fruition, like running a marathon is not easy. Like running 26.2mi/42.2km, just getting your concept to production or on retail shelves is an accomplishment that not everyone can achieve. But do it once, and as difficult as it is you’ll likely find a way to do it again. As crazy as it seems, running a marathon can be addictive- very few people only run one. Designing a product to bring to market is no different.
Like a marathon, a lot will happen on the way. Mistakes will be made. Even with perfect training factors beyond your control can go horribly wrong. You’ll get emotional highs and lows. What’s most important is that you learn from your mistakes, get creative and keep your goals in mind.