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Mind The Gap

The taste / ability gap and what it takes to become a designer

Mind The Gap
Matteo Grand
September 6, 2023

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​​"The work you're making isn't so good, okay? It's really not that great. It's trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but your taste - the thing that got you into the game - your taste is still killer..."

- Ira Glass

I stumbled across this video of Ira Glass of This American Life talking about the taste / ability gap, and it made me think deeply about my own journey becoming a designer. 

Glass argues that when we are young creatives, what gets us started is our refined sense of taste. He goes on to describe how at the start, our taste is far beyond our ability to produce, which can leave us disappointed as we start producing work that doesn’t live up to our own standards. We can be quick to see this as proof that we aren’t, in fact, cut out to be creative.

An illustration of the ability / taste gap, where "novice" exists on the far left of the spectrum, and "taste" exists on the far right. "Your ability" is somewhere in the middle, and portion between your ability and "taste" is the gap.

My first experience of ‘designing’ anything came about by accident. It was mid 2010, I was working in my family’s publishing company as a studio assistant, and the iPad had just been unveiled.

All of a sudden, an industry that had always focused on the printed word faced an existential threat – digitalism. 

At that time I was studying computer science, so my role at the company quickly changed from photocopying things and filling the dummy book, to working out how to transition our publications online. 

It was an intensely exciting challenge, but it meant I had to design things. I had grown up around designers and other creatives, but never considered myself to be either. 

As the months passed and I iterated my designs based on the ever changing scope of one’s first project, I remember feeling this deep embarrassment every time someone asked me to see progress. I knew what I had designed was functional, but it definitely wasn’t beautiful and I had no idea of how to make it better.

My taste was far better than my ability. 

I was lucky that when the print deadline finished, the Art Director had some time to help me. He was gracious and sat with me for hours teaching me how to bring to life what I saw in my mind’s eye using InDesign and Photoshop. Primitive tech by today’s web design standards, but my taste / ability gap was slowly closing.

If we visualise our ability on a spectrum from ‘novice’ to ‘taste’, as each of our tastes are different, I believe there is a threshold we each need to cross in order to prove to ourselves that we are worthy as creatives.

The confidence threshold illustrated on the spectrum between "novice" and "taste"

This threshold is different for each person, and I believe it is closely coupled with one’s ability to sit with discomfort, but there is only one sure way to reach it, and that is through practice.

Once we reach this threshold, things all of a sudden become easier. You become confident in playing and making mistakes, and you start to build your abilities more quickly.

What’s more, is that as you progress right along the ability spectrum, your taste will start to change and move itself further along to the right as well. You will likely find yourself facing new resistance, which is a clue that your threshold has likely also shifted. 

This constant push and pull creates a force that keeps you and your work in constant evolution.

Your taste how now moved off the right of the page as it is off the charts.

Now, if you’re anything like me, quality is your key metric. But what I find comforting about seeing this spectrum visualised is it reminds me that every rep counts. Quantity (practice) is the way to achieve quality.

So, if you’re ever having a moment of perfectionism or self doubt, try toreframe the fear or negative self-talk and remind yourself that this is part of the practice.