25 Mar

Don’t start from scratch

We all want to leverage our time and effort. That’s why ideas like the 80/20 rule are so popular. Work on something until it’s good enough, then move on. But our work just isn’t good enough? What if you want to go beyond 80%?

That’s what I want to talk about today.

A couple weeks ago I was up in the mountains of North Carolina with a few of close friends for a mastermind retreat. During one of our feedback sessions James Clear asked for feedback on his wildly popular blog. That gave me a chance to mention something that I’d been thinking about for a while: I felt his site design didn’t live up to the quality of his content.

It wasn’t that the site was bad—in fact, I liked the minimal style—but a better design would have more attention to quality and typography.

James thought for a second and said, “I guess I could get it redesigned.”

The peril of starting from scratch

That’s something I’ve heard a lot: if something isn’t good enough, it’s time to redo it. Sometimes that’s necessary, but more often you should use the foundation you already have to get closer to perfect.

James didn’t need a site redesign. He just needed to spend a little time to add the final level of polish to make his design truly stellar.

So that’s what we did. After dinner that night James opened up the styles on his site and started making changes. I’d point out little things like: “Let’s find a new font for that title” or “let’s change the navigation color.” But for the most part the next two hours were spent with James making small tweaks and asking the group, “What do you think?”

Instead of starting from scratch and having to spend days designing and building a new design James was able to take his site design from “good enough” to “great!” in a couple hours.

Had he hired a designer or created an entirely new design it probably would have only reached 80% before it was declared “good enough” and everyone moved on to the other aspects of running a popular blog.


Fix the little things

At ConvertKit I’ve prioritized growing the business and designing a solid user experience over adding little bits of polish to the interface. That means ConvertKit is powerful, easy to use software, but it lacks the nice icons, illustrations, and animations that really complete the experience.

There were a handful of little quirks that were really bothering me, so the other day I opened up my code editor and started fixing them one-by-one.

I changed the hover state on a button, organized form fields on a page, made it so you could link to a specific tab on the settings page, and reworked the success and error messages.

What surprised me is just how little time these took to fix. Some of these issues had been bothering me for months, but I’d never had time to take care of them. Or at least I felt like it was a big deal so I put it off till when I could make it a priority.

That time never came (surprise!).

But when I just set aside an hour and fixed the little things, it was amazing how quickly everything came together.

James noticed the same thing. His site didn’t take weeks to redesign. Instead the process took about two or three hours.

The old design:

The redesign:james-clear-new

Redesign vs. Realign.

Years ago I heard Cameron Moll talk about how good designers redesign, but great designers realign. Meaning great designers take what’s already good and add the last bit of polish to take it to the next level. Rather than starting from scratch and spending all their time trying to get back to 80%.

One caveat

James finally went to bed at 2:00 AM. Though when I walked passed his room 30 minutes later I could see that instead of sleeping, he’d got his laptop back out and was making tiny tweaks to his site.

When I made the ConvertKit changes the other night I didn’t want to stop. Seeing small bits of progress on things that have been bothering you for months can be addicting.

So my only caveat is that once you get in the flow of fixing small things, you may enjoy it so much you stay up way too late.

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19 Responses to “Don’t start from scratch”

  1. Greg says:

    Love that you’re behind this message as a “great” designer. I’ve seen many projects go from good enough, to a new good enough without actually gaining any advantage out of their design changes. Most of those projects were lead by “good” designers who didn’t have enough experience to realize the effort/scope of that final 20%.

    I’m curious what your opinion is for circumstances that merit the full redesgin? I know that’s a loaded question, but do you have a short list of indicators that would be better for a projects to lean towards a full redesign? New plaform, old markup…?

  2. Enjoyed this post. I’ve stayed up into wee hours of the morning tweaking things on my site or projects… but it never seems to end! At some point I just have to make myself stop, put it down, walk away (or go to sleep) and go back to it later.

  3. Thanks for your blog Nathan. I think the redesign idea is so prevalent in our mindset. Rather than fix up something that’s slightly broke or not working right we tend to get something new–even when the old still works. And like you said, why spend all that time to only get back to 80%?
    As far as finding the time, I’ve been noticing a lot lately how much of my time and energy are spent thinking about those nagging little projects. If I’d just sit down and do them how much more time and energy would I have for real creativity?

  4. Warren Sidosky says:

    Great read Nathan! Reminiscent of Collins’ “Good to Great”, although Carlson’s “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff” often adds a conundrum.

  5. Just over a year ago, I emailed James out of the blue and pretty much begged him to make his site responsive. I love his writing but I had stopped reading as much because it was so painful to do on my phone. I even ended up giving him a quote to do it for him, but I really wasn’t after the work, as much I just really wanted his site to work in the medium I was reading it the most.

    I’m glad to see he’s still making improvements!

    While we’re on the subject…I notice your site isn’t responsive yet… maybe your next tweak?

  6. Christoper R says:

    Great Article, really made me think. Cheers

  7. Hej Nathan! This is really interesting topic for me. I interview Slovenian entrepreneurs with the similar question:

    “What is the breaking point at which you would pivot your business or start again?”

    And most of them are saying that starting again would be the last resort for them if they really felt that the business is dying or not growing at all no mather what they do.

    Keep hustling! :)

  8. Hassan says:

    That was a great read! I’ve recently been wondering over how I could apply the Pareto principle in other areas of my life except design/business, and this article hit the nail on the head! Can’t wait to read more of your stuff :)

  9. Nathan I think you really hit the nail on the head here. I for one have also been putting off making small tweaks and changes for months – I think it’s time to stop with the excuses and get to work.

  10. So true, thanks for sharing Nathan !

  11. John says:

    Great advice here, thanks for the article!

  12. Sometimes we make a mountain of a molehill. A saying that I have to remind myself again and again.

    When I step back and objectively look at my goals 95% of the time it’s just about taking small steps and not needing to take big leaps. I’m grateful for the reminder. Hope you’ve been well.

  13. Nathan,

    Definitely agree with your points. I was looking to do a site redesign a few months back but the thought of it was making me so stressed out because of how long it took me to design the thing to begin with. I started playing with a few elements I didn’t like and found it drastically changed the feel of the site, which made the process less stressful and much more enjoyable. I always say I’m in the process of “realigning” the design since I come across things that can be tweaked almost monthly. Small tweaks and updates definitely make a difference and I think it’s a much smarter approach than just reinventing the wheel.

  14. Love the idea of realigning our blog layout. For someone who isn’t a designer, where do you recommend to find someone that could make these simple enhancements on our blog?

  15. That’s some great advice at right time for me.

    I am thinking of redesigning several sites. However, you may just have convinced me to just add small fixes.

    Thanks for sharing your experience.

  16. Very awesome, quite the relief actually. The small things to a non-designer like myself seem like they wouldn’t do much. But after reading one design book (the Non-Designers Design Book) there were so many realizations about how small realignments make a big difference. And most people recognize one version of design as better than the other, but just can’t specifically break it down like a designer can.

  17. I also need to add that the whole header and intro area of your blog post – the whole “above the fold” section of your blog post is just amazing. One of the best design blogs and sites I’ve ever seen. Even though there’s nothing super advanced or technical – it just works.

  18. I’m usually the one to tweak things until there’s nothing that can be done to improve things anymore.

    If I’ve done all the tweaking I could and I’m still not happy, that means it’s time for a redesign (and my website’s redesign has been long overdue).

    The difference on James’ blog is quite amazing,though :)

  19. “But when I just set aside an hour and fixed the little things, it was amazing how quickly everything came together.”

    So true. The small font-size of sub-menu links on my site has been bothering my for weeks, but I resisted the idea of finding the right rule to change in my CSS (even though it’s not that hard!). I finally did it this morning, and it took about 3 minutes.

    Why do we put these things off?

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