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Death by Screens: the newsletter

Doing the wrong thing to find the right thing, aka The Goldilocks Zone

Published 8 months ago • 1 min read

Education, fables, game design, astrophysics, writing, story structure: they’re all connected by a useful principle you can use to improve how you communicate.

Deliberate failure

Our schooling has really internalised the idea that the correct answer is the only one that matters. As I write, my twelve-year-old son is being tested again on some topic he told me that he already knows. As teachers in the UK like to say - you can’t fatten a pig by measuring it.

As an adult, I learned that failure was useful. Not just in that ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ kind-of-way, but also as a deliberate, methodical approach to creating something new. Game designer Kathleen Mercury teaches kids that you can’t actually make a good board game right away. You have to make a bad one first, see the problems for what they are, and then iterate to something that’s good.

In the spirit of Kathleen’s advice, let's use a concept from astrophysics to help us be better communicators.


Finding the Zone

The Goldilocks Zone is the area of a solar system just the right temperature for liquid water on planets and, therefore, more likely to contain life. Not too hot (no water) and not too cold (ice); it’s ‘just right’. (Note: if you’re not familiar with western fables - here’s why they called it that).

If you’re in doubt about how much to say about a topic, try creating a version that’s too long, and then one that’s too short. Here’s an example from the book that illustrates this for one point you're trying to make.

Designers often struggle with saying too much. As I say in the book: your design is likely the only thing you’re working on, so you feel the need to say it all. The problem is that for a stakeholder, the design is one of fifty things they care about. You have to get the point across efficiently.

But the way to get to something ‘just right’? Mould it from something that’s knowingly wrong. Commit to the act of bungling how much to say with keen consciousness.

Note that the principle applies to the presentation structure just as much as it does to the writing. In your outlining process, once you have the ‘kitchen sink and everything thrown in' version, go to the other extreme, and make an outline that’s as bare as a concrete floor.

In summary: Use The Goldilocks Zone to become a better editor of your own work. By forcing yourself to look as hard at what doesn't work, it's easier to find what does.

Tell great stories about your design work.

Death by Screens: available now in paperback or ebook

Death by Screens: the newsletter

by Ben Sauer

My book "Death by Screens: how to present high-stakes digital design work and live to tell the tale" - is here to help designers tell better stories about their work. Get three winning presentation tips from the book by signing up below!

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