“The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago.” is the beginning of a common proverb. However, what feels like a missed opportunity is actually turning into quite the opposite as it continues with: “The second best time is now!”
I heard this right around the time when we bought our first house in Pasadena in 2010. It was a small cottage with a large, yet mostly unattractive backyard filled with grass, and asphalt badminton court (seriously), and not much more. Wakako was pregnant with our first daughter and I imagined her running around the garden as she would grow up. Except there was nothing in the garden to run “around”, not counting the asphalt which had loose gravel on top, and that just made me think of scraped knees - so it had to go.
Thinking about the proverb, I felt compelled to plant trees. Fruit trees to be precise, the more the better. However, we did not exactly have a “tree fund” left after the downpayment for the house, so we had to get creative in how to get started.
In researching what kind of trees to plant are native to our area, I stumbled upon a program sponsored by the city that would reimburse the purchasing price for every planted tree, as long as it was on their list (and in small size). Free trees? This program exists to help reduce local temperatures in Southern California which in turn can help conserve a homeowner’s energy consumption in the long run. The details of the program specified that over a 7-year span, up to 10 small trees could be reimbursed. “Why wait 7 years?” I thought, “May as well plant them now, watch them grow, and then repeat the process in 7 years…”
The first set of trees did not all do equally well. Some thrived, some had to be replanted, some did not take to the ground at all and had to be replaced. Some I even replaced multiple times (sorry avocado!) until I understood: “This one is just not going to grow in this soil.” As planned, I repeated the process after 7 years and planted another 10 trees through the program. By then I had gained a better knowledge of what had the potential of growing in the yard and I was able to complete the original vision of the garden.
By the time we were ready to sell the house at the beginning of this year, the backyard had turned into a park-like setting with meandering paths caused by a decade of our kids playing around the trees, now grown to impressive sizes. While the trees provided the structure, the surrounding foliage changed considerably during that time. Gardening is, after all, a process of trial, error, and repeat. This is also the basis for one of my favorite Creative Strategies techniques called “Failfast Prototyping”, which I describe in chapter #6 of my book Creative Strategies. Despite the name, it is a process that never fails me as long as I am comfortable with unexpected results.
In Failfast Prototyping, you start without a solid expectation of the exact shape and form of the final outcome or even how to get there. A simple dream (“running around trees”) is enough. So instead of a solid plan, step one is actually to start with as many attempts (prototypes) as possible. Step two is to adjust the course along the way based on what you learn at the previous stage. Usually, you understand what did not work, and you try a different approach. And then you repeat the steps until something starts to work. The key is to embrace imperfection as part of the process because, as a strategy, it aims to overcome the most challenging part in any new creative endeavor: Taking the first step!
In my Creative Strategies class that I teach at ArtCenter College of Design, I compare the strategy Failfast Prototyping to crossing a wide river by means of stepping stones. In that example, the overall objective, or the vision, is to cross the river simply. The path, however, only becomes visible at each step of the way. It is a back and forth of negotiating the course, finding new options, and adjusting the direction along the way. You don’t know the way until you take the actual steps, and it is not possible to see more than one or two steps ahead. I love Failfast Prototyping because the path will inevitably lead to a different landing point from where the project started.
In the example above, the stepping stones represent “prototyping.” While the terminology originates from Industrial design, a prototype can represent any attempt to advance the creative process. For example, when I design a graphic cover for one of our notebooks, we usually have a vision of what it wants to say (the river), but I have no idea what it will look like (the path across the river). In this case, the rocks are the sketches that will ultimately lead me to the other side. The challenge, in this case, is not knowing how many steps it will take exactly. Thus I need to start fast to get the process started and to learn from each attempt.
A different kind of challenge presented itself when I designed BK’s Journey Bag for our ten-year anniversary. We had a vision (to carry a notebook and phone along with a few creative tools) and a date for production. I knew that it would take many physical prototypes (stepping stones) to translate the sketches into a functional design. How many? I never know before I start the process. The other element I did not realize at the time was how to actually sew to make the prototypes in the first place. The metaphorical tree I needed to plant that day was to sign-up for a sewing class.
I took the sewing lessons not with the primary goal of learning how to sew (I figured that would come eventually) but rather to start the process of making prototypes. Not surprisingly, my first attempts looked dismal. With every new attempt, though, I was working out the proportions, functions, and details. Each prototype was discussed and tested over dinner. Closer to the end of the process, I even had a few straight stitch lines, which I was very proud of (and my teacher, too!). When using Failfast Prototyping, I have to trust that the process will ultimately yield a result, even if the result is different from what I expected. Sometimes it is better than expected because expectations can be limited by imagination. Hence, with Failfast Prototyping, I try to start with blurry expectations at best.
Prototyping on a small scale and with a minimal initial investment of both time and resources has been the starting line of many of our products. There are a few, though, that has never been fully resolved. They have failed to “cross the river” in that sense, and we have decided not to continue them. In similar ways, some of the trees I planted never made it, unfortunately, so they were replaced with others. I think that is a natural part of the design process and knowing so, I allow myself to dream up different creative projects instead of holding on to a single one.
The process of trial and error is not limited to just designing projects; it is equally rewarding to apply it to all sorts of ideas that have risen to the surface. So, if you are thinking of starting a new creative project, writing a book, producing artwork, venturing into new businesses, learning an instrument, or trying out a new career, truly the best time to start the process is now. Start small but start. See if you actually like doing what you have been dreaming of doing. And avoid the most common pitfall that may try to prevent you from taking the first step: Excuses (“I need to find a publisher before I can start to write a book…” or “I need to have a piano before I can learn to play”).
Find out what you can do now with what you have available and start to plant your tree. I am curious to hear where your journey will lead you.